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From bitter to sweet – making the most of maror

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A traumatic brain injury. The loss of a troubled parent. Battling devastating burns. Whether they’ve endured near-death experiences or devastating loss, these three people embody the power that comes with approaching the bitterest of experiences with positivity.

An occupational therapist (OT) with the world at her feet, Kerry-Lee Brandt-Salamon (now 38) had been married for just five months when a freak aerial acrobatics accident almost ended her life. Working as a pole acrobat and aerial artist in her spare time, she was rehearsing for a show at Sun City in August 2014 when the unthinkable happened. While performing a trapeze sequence with another acrobat holding her from above, the rigging broke, and Brandt-Salamon plunged 6m headfirst to the ground. Her partner landed on top of her.

Unconscious but breathing, she was rushed to emergency surgery to treat the bleeding on her brain. Ultimately, she spent six months in hospital, in a coma and undergoing multiple operations including brain surgeries and an arm amputation. “They told me I’d never recover and would be a vegetable,” says Brandt-Salamon. “The fact that I’ve recovered as much as I have and that I’m still recovering has shocked everyone, even my sister, who herself is a doctor.”

Brandt-Salamon attributes her ongoing recovery to the support of her amazing family and husband. The fact that she was incredibly fit before the accident has also worked in her favour. Having spent the five years following the accident in a wheelchair, she’s now walking but has a boot on her foot, which is everted – turned out. She also struggles with her short-term memory and has a prosthetic arm. She continues to undergo extensive physio and occupational therapy, and sees a psychiatrist who advocates the power of talking to deal with the emotional toll the accident has taken.

“I’ve always been a positive, determined person,” she says. “I never lost that willpower to keep going because otherwise, I would have given up a long time ago, it’s just been so difficult.”

Brandt-Salamon has spoken publicly about her accident and is planning to write a book about her experience. “The fact that I’ve come out of it the way I have after almost dying in hospital five or six times, and the fact that I was able to pull through and just keep going is a powerful story,” she says.

Having slowly begun to assist one child with OT challenges, Brandt-Salamon plans to go back to practicing properly one day. She also hopes to start a family soon.

“Kerry is inspirational because of the way she pushes forward,” says her husband, Roi Salamon. “The accident hasn’t changed her good nature. From being very quiet before, she’s become incredibly outgoing and makes friends with everyone.”

For 25-year-old Jayde Ronthal, positivity has also been a driving force in the face of challenges. The daughter of a single mother who suffered from anorexia and a drug addiction, Ronthal was forced to grow up quickly. “It wasn’t easy, I basically assumed the role of a mom to her and my younger brother from a very young age because my mom just wasn’t present to be that person.”

Recognising her leadership ability, her school appointed her head girl in matric, and Ronthal dedicated her time to the school and various charities. A few years later, tragedy struck when her mother passed away just after Ronthal’s 21st birthday.

“I took a long time to grieve, but her loss also taught me resilience and encouraged me to do more,” she says. “My mom was such a giving person, and that’s something that I took from losing her. It inspired me to give back in the way that she wanted to, to live a healthy lifestyle, to connect with positive people, and to live a passionate and fulfilling life. I don’t want to regret anything.”

The director of the Friendship Circle, a non-profit organisation for kids with special needs, Ronthal also co-founded Ayekah during the COVID-19 pandemic, which provides Shabbat meals to 70 families each week. She’s also an active Selwyn Segal volunteer, and runs the Emunah Batmitzvah programme. Currently completing her honours degree in psychology, Ronthal plans eventually to open her own clinical psychology practice.

Yechiel Hummel, 23, a travelling mashgiach who shares kashrut tips on Instagram, knew he had to take positive outcomes from a near-death experience in order to move forward. Just eight months ago in Kenya, while working as head mashgiach for Africa Kosher Safaris, Hummel lit a cylinder to heat up food on a chafing dish – a metal cooking pan on a stand with an alcohol burner below it.

“I had never really had fire training, so I put in more of the spirit jelly and the match was still lit,” he recalls. “The next thing, I heard a massive noise. People were taking cover from the explosion, and I started to feel hot. I looked down and saw that my legs, stomach, and arms had caught alight. I freaked out.” It was the quick thinking of two other leaders on site who told him to roll over that saved his life.

Taken to hospital in Nairobi, Hummel was later transferred to Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg, where he had several surgeries and treatments including three skin grafts. Though he knows his leg will never look the same, he says he’s grateful to be walking, something he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to do. “I’m fully functional again, back to playing sport and touring through my work,” he says.

Once Hummel was declared stable, he realised that there were aspects of his personality that needed to change. “There were things that I was saying to friends and family – the ones who have given me the strength to keep going – that I never should have,” he says. “This was a wake-up call.”

Some of the most positive outcomes were daily gratitude journaling and his friendship with Ephraim Stern, one of the men who saved his life. “Before this event, we didn’t get along at all and today, we have a special connection which includes learning once a week,” says Hummel.

“I’m not perfect, and there’s still so much I have to work on, but this event motivated me to start the journey to becoming a new person.”

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