Sandi Pitchers Keel (58), an adventure junkie from Mondeor, Johannesburg, affectionately known as ‘DirtBarbie’, has always taken life by the horns and knows a thing or two about endurance, and the road less travelled.
For the last 18 years, Sandi has been a member of the motorcycling community, racing 1000cc superbikes, taking on national Supermoto, enduro, cross-country and a bit of MX racing, and she even conquered the legendary KTM 500.
“Sandi is a very strong-willed and self-determined individual. She has nerves of steel which is a great attribute for her riding adventures. She strongly believes in justice for all and is willing to help anyone when she can. Even though she does not have much she is always the first to put her hand in her pocket to help someone in need.” says her sister, Tracy
After a freak bike accident, the daredevil is gearing up to take on her biggest challenge yet, a rare cancer diagnosis.
On 17 December 2021, while travelling to the Eastern and Western Cape to ride the magnificent passes, Sandi’s riding partner accidentally drove into the back of her bike just outside Gariep dam.
While her bike was badly damaged, costing R38 000 to fix, Sandi’s physical injuries didn’t seem serious, and she gave herself 10 days to recover at her sister’s house in Jeffreys Bay, before making the 3-day journey back to Johannesburg.
On 18 January 2022, exactly one month after her accident, or ‘naps’, as she likes to call them, Sandi was admitted to Mulbarton Hospital after a weekend spent coughing, vomiting, and eventually throwing up blood.
To help increase Sandi’s sodium levels, she was placed on a drip that made her arm swell severely. To reduce the swelling, doctors administered an intravenous antibiotic that sent her into Anaphylaxis shock, which put her life in jeopardy.
On the 4th of February 2022, Sandi was transferred to Donald Gordon Hospital where she had to undergo 3 debridement operations on her arm where her drip was placed, as well as a gastroscopy which revealed an extensive infection from malnutrition.
It was only after doctors ran a series of blood tests that they realised the root of Sandi’s symptoms for which she was initially admitted.
Sandi stopped in her tracks when she was diagnosed with Neuroendocrine Small Cell Carcinoma with Paraneoplastic Syndrome, a rare, aggressive cancer that started as lung cancer.
Letting go of her locks
On the 16th of February 2022, ‘rebel heart’ on full display, Sandi snuck out of her bed after 30 days in hospital, and met her sister Tracy in the parking lot, who was waiting with the engine running.
The pair made their getaway to IamBrett salon for virtue and not vanity, hellbent on transforming Sandi’s trademark platinum locks into a ‘short and sassy’ grey do, to create wigs for The Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA).
“After having long blonde hair, which so many admired, it was indeed my crowning glory. I knew that the journey ahead would see me losing it, so I thought why waste it when it can be put to good use to help those cancer patients that need wigs for their cancer journeys. And so it was an easy decision to make.” – says Sandi.
Thanking the pit crew who facilitated the makeover, Sandi said it was one of the best experiences of her life and “something every girl has to do at least once in their lifetime.”
After dropping off her locks around the corner from the salon at CANSA, Sandi returned to the hospital in full glam, where she was met with mouths wide open.
“I was instantly forgiven my ‘misdemeanour’ of course they’d never had an AWOL patient before…but you know…with me around there will be a always a first time” – says Sandi.
When Sandi was discharged from the hospital on the 18th February 2022, an oncologist told her that she had less than a year to live and that she should live her life to the fullest, ticking off her bucket list items she’s always wanted to do.
Not accepting the verdict, and the low chance of survival she was given, Sandi sought a second opinion.
“When you give me limitations, I AM going to prove you wrong. Here’s a news flash, I don’t accept it, he isn’t the author of my destiny” – says Sandi.
After meeting with a cardiologist, Sandi was given the go-ahead for a specialised treatment, recommended by medical and radiation oncologists that has shown promising results.
Unfortunately, the treatment does pose a risk to Sandi’s genetic heart condition, known as Marfan syndrome, which affects connective tissue. Radiation could dilate Sandi’s already enlarged aorta further, for which she will need to be monitored carefully.
To treat Sandi’s tumours, doctors have mapped out an extensive plan that consists of chemotherapy and 33 consecutive radiation sessions, which if all goes well should conclude on Friday, 16th May.
In August, Sandi will have a series of check-ups to determine her progress.
Pit crew needed
To assist Sandi with the rollercoaster of expenses she is currently facing, a crowdfunding campaign has been launched on BackaBuddy, to appeal for public support, as Sandi is currently unemployed.
Fortunately, Sandi does have medical aid and gap cover but it’s all the expenses in between that she needs assistance with.
Unable to work due to being ill has made it difficult for Sandi to cover the cost of her medical aid, gap cover, the supplementals not covered by her medical insurance, fuel costs to and from treatments, as well as a stipend for her sister, who has given up her life in the Western Cape to care for Sandi during this time.
Since the launch of the campaign, over R87 500 has been raised with contributions from 53 generous donors.
“A humongous thank you to every one of you who has contributed to my cause. I cannot begin to explain the gratitude I have for all of you who have supported me. The outpouring of genuine love and encouragement has touched me at the core of my being and I am humbled. Some days tears slip out of my eyes when I think of you all and how you have helped me, my cup runneth over. May you all be blessed as you have blessed me.” – Sandi’s message to her supporters
Support Sandi’s treatment on BackaBuddy: https://www.backabuddy.co.za/sandi-keel
Alternatively donate via Snapscan: https://pos.snapscan.io/qr/SandiKeel
For updates follow Sandi on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sandipitcherskeel
UPDATE: 23 August 2022
“I was admitted to Milpark Hospital as an emergency yesterday.
I have a lot of specialist doctors looking after me. They have put me on steroids to ease the pressure on my spine so that I can hopefully walk properly, today there is slight improvement. They running all sorts of tests to get to the bottom of everything and determine treatment plan. If there is nerve damage I won’t walk properly again nor will feeling return to my legs and full paralysis will set in. I’m hoping for the best 🙏🏻🙏🏻🙏🏻
This inoperable spinal cord tumour is a secondary tumour to the primary small cell lung cancer I have and radiation and chemotherapy are also known to cause secondary cancers 😏
The neurologist at Milpark thinks it may also be a myelitis, both, either way, are an indication of progression of my disease and paralysis. They are hoping to stop this from happening.
Visiting is any time as long as not more than 2. I am in Section 9 Room 5, its a lovely big private room so at least I don’t have to put up with other people’s snoring just my own 😂😂😂
Medical costs are going to be an issue especially having any MRI’s and other scans as I have exceeded the number allowed by medical aid. These are not cheap and I am once again at the begging bowl asking for financial assistance to help me with these costs 🙏🏻.
Thank you again for all the prayers and messages, they keep me positive ❤️❤️❤️”
Taking to Facebook, Sandi penned a short summary of the lessons she has learned throughout her cancer journey:
I learnt new words and I learned medical terms I never thought would relate to me.
I learned patience.
I learnt humility.
I learned to speak up when it was necessary.
I learned to fight an invisible enemy.
I learned I’m stronger than I thought I was
I learned that my life experiences have equipped me for the journey I am now travelling.
I learned to laugh through the madness.
I learned it’s okay to cry happy tears and sad tears and to know the difference.
I learned that I’m loved and cared for by so many…beyond what I could have imagined.
I learned that life’s too short for shit.
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