Andrew Merryweather, who was left paralysed after an assault nearly a decade ago, is studying to become a certified financial planner. Picture: Esa Alexander
Andrew Merryweather, who was left paralysed after an assault nearly a decade ago, is studying to become a certified financial planner. Picture: Esa Alexander

"Tragedy really does strike in an instant and it can be debilitating, financially and emotionally," says Andrew Merryweather, the survivor of a brutal assault that rendered him disabled at the age of 24.

It is almost a decade since the attack and Merryweather lives with just one regret: he had neither insurance for disability nor income protection.

"It has put tremendous pressure on my immediate family, and my journey would have been easier had I had good financial advice," he told delegates at the Financial Planning Institute's recent annual conference.

At the time of the assault, Merryweather was working as a restaurant manager in Camps Bay and studying law.

En route home from a night out partying with a friend, they stopped to get something to eat at a petrol station, where they ran into some drunken youths.

A fight broke out in which Merryweather was knocked unconscious. When he regained consciousness, he was being kicked repeatedly in his side, but couldn't feel his legs. "In a split second, my life changed forever."

In a presentation titled "If I could turn back time", the 33-year-old Capetonian shared with financial planners part of his story, including some of the financial and emotional hardships he has faced on his journey to recovery.

'You'll never walk again'

"I woke up in ICU after that night, with weights pressing against my skull to keep my neck in traction. My neck had been broken on C6 and C7, leaving me a quadriplegic. I couldn't move anything. I was scared and angry. I spent the next four days in ICU before they decided I could undergo a six-and-a-half-hour operation which entailed cutting part of my right hip bone out and inserting it into my neck, along with a titanium plate.

"I remember so clearly after the operation the surgeon saying: 'The op was a tremendous success but you are never going to walk again.' It was like something out of a movie. My life was over in those moments."

But having left hospital a tetraplegic - with nothing but the use of his right hand - Merryweather has made a truly remarkable recovery due to his sheer determination.

Not long after he started rehabilitation therapy, he dismissed a team of medical professionals who told him he would never walk again and threw himself into new schools of research.

Some years ago, he started gaining movement in his right leg and more recently his left leg has started to move.

"They told me to get used to life in a wheelchair; I refused to accept that," says Merryweather. But the road to recovery has been hard and the expenses have been steep - about R2-million to date.

"Over the years, he has explored the use of a machine called the Lokomat, which costs about R6-million, and more recently a robotic walking suit called a ReWalk, for which he travelled to the UK to try out. Since he couldn't afford the R800000 for the ReWalk, he went with a different type of suit, an American design, and a demo model which was discounted.

"It would have been so much easier had I had the funding to buy the equipment," he told delegates.

Moving on

Although Merryweather won a R10-million damages claim against Oliver Scholtz, one of his attackers, Scholtz appealed the judgment and it was overturned.

But Merryweather has moved on.

He dropped his law studies - he says the protracted legal battles following the assault put him off law - and was coaxed into the financial services industry in 2014.

It was after he was featured on Carte Blanche that Hardi Swart of Autus Private Clients made contact with Merryweather.

"We fast became friends. He claimed my story was a powerful and cautionary tale that I needed to share and that by being in the financial services industry I could have a positive impact on many people."

Merryweather, who is under the mentorship of Autus chairman Christo Malan and is 18 months away from obtaining his certified financial planner accreditation, says financial planning is an honourable profession.

"If you're doing your job correctly, always keeping your clients' needs at the front of every engagement and investment decision, you are truly changing their lives for the better."

He says disability insurance and income protection are "extremely affordable" and that he could have afforded both at 24.

Disability insurance pays out a lump sum in varying amounts according to the severity of the disability, and income protection pays you a percentage of your income every month while you're unable to work.

Not a grudge purchase

Merryweather says that if he could speak to his 24-year-old self, he would emphasise to him that there are two parts to a portfolio: wealth creation and wealth protection. "Wealth creation is the exciting part, where you spend money on investments and watch your money grow. But you have to build on a solid foundation and that is wealth protection. Most people view this as a grudge purchase. But without your foundation, which is built on adequate risk policies, your portfolio will probably not be able to weather the storms of life.

"Certainly, money doesn't take away the pain and tragedy of a physical trauma, but it does take away the stress of finances and allows you to concentrate on getting better. In my case all of the best therapies are unfortunately overseas and because I had no risk policies, affordability is very difficult."

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