From Was to Will

If you’re expecting a tearjerker from some “poor young man trapped and languishing in the confines of a wheel chair” then I’ve got news for you. Go read Mills & Boons and all such heart breaks because this young man, I assure you, is anything but poor (that’s actually my dad whose footing all my medical bills) or languishing (I have a job, a car and a beautiful wife. So now that we have the basic’s out of the way let me walk-sorry! Let me roll you through my life.

But first allow me a minute of digression. In the past 17 years I have had a lot of time to think about many things, above all about life itself. Not that it’s big deal because you would have too if like me you had spent half that time lying on your belly staring at the floor or spending two thirds of your walking time sitting on your behind.

(Remember Buddha? Well he too just sat and sat and sat and just look at the man, wow! And to think I’m just a few years away from matching his sitting-mantra). Seriously speaking when I had first injured myself and had become a cripple, God, how I still hate this word, I simply wanted to die. And that too not for any so called noble purpose of sparing trouble to my parents or family but simply for the convenience of it. Imagine the stupidity of wanting to die merely because Living Normally Suddenly Appeared a Daunting Task.

But over the years I realized one thing, there is nothing morebeautiful than life itself. Life with its tiny insignificant joys. And I intend living it to the full. That is why I am calling this brief autobiography of mine”… From was to will”. There was a time when I was physically normal, then I was turned into a cripple but now I feel normal once again and Insha-Allah will become everything I ever wanted to be. And having said my piece let me now take you through the trials and tribulations of your indigenous Mr. Iron-side.

I was just fifteen and life was good, and particularly so that summer of 1991. My father was posted in Quetta at the time and so with the family stuck up there I alone had been allowed to go to Gujranwala to holiday with my cousins, the naughtiest tribe of youngsters on this side of Suez. Life was eat-play-laugh-eat and nothing else. I had always been the outdoors chap and while I may have been fuzzy about many things I surprisingly had one clear goal-to win an Olympic gold in swimming. But first I had to get into the national side and with the trials for junior national swimming team a mere two months away, this water baby was wasting no opportunity to hit the water. And boy did I really hit it that day.

The bunch of us was lazily strolling through some farmland when we came across a small waterway. Anybody could have told you that it could not have been more than a couple of feet deep and no place to show off but try telling that to a cocky fifteen year old whose swimming ego was more buoyant than a full blown tyre tube. Within seconds I was the first one to strip off my shirt and get to the edge of the waterway. Once there, I raised myself on my toes, spread out my arms in an exaggerated stance of a show diver and dived in. It was the last time that I would be feeling the weight of my body on my feet, but I didn’t know it at that time.

All I know is that a searing pain ran through my entire body as my head struck the shallow base and all sensation left my body. I floated back to the surface belly down like a rag doll, my face still under water. My cousins thought it was a prank and started dunking me jokingly and I nearly died by drowning. Only after I screamed out in pain and told them to keep my face out of water did the reality sink in. It would be another few hours and what appeared like an eternity of being tossed around in the back of an army truck that I would make it to the military hospital. It would be another few days before I would be introduced to my neck vertebras C4 & C5, which had been broken by the fall and had in turn crushed my spinal cord. I was now officially a cripple. I just didn’t know it then.

The upside about being involved in a serious accident is that the worst passes away while the injured is either passed out or too damn hurting to care. Like I learnt later, the doctors were convinced that I wouldn’t last more than a few hours and in a bid to make it less painful I was told that my ribs had been broken and I would be fine in a few days. To cut the story short I was then shifted to Lahore. And what a welcoming reception I got. Two holes were drilled on either side of my head (No! that’s not how I lost my brains), clamps bearing 30lbs weights were attached in an apparent bid to pull my neck back into its original position. By now my family was already on its way from Quetta and since my dad was coming as well, would you believe it that I was actually secretly glad about my accident. See, I wasn’t that excited about my soon to be announced academic results so I was quite happy to pay the price of a few broken ribs and skip his admonishing on the sympathy count. But by now I had started growing suspicious. If my ribs were broken then why the hell were they hanging weights that were unbearably agonizing? At times it was so bad that I could no longer hold back my tears. When the real picture was finally given to me, I cried that night as well. But these were not tears of pain, but of fear. For the first time in life I suddenly became scared of life itself. What followed were months of painful existence and a major surgery involving the removal of bone shrapnel from around the spinal cord. It took three men to move me in bed even I was totally numb below my neck. Everybody wanted me to believe otherwise but I knew what I was; a vegetable.

 I hated my state, to put it mildly. Only weeks earlier I had been a strapping lad of six-feet three who had been reduced to a three foot something crumpled mass, destined to be tucked away in a wheel chair for the remainder of his days. Refuge came in the form of denial. I convinced myself that I would be okay in no time and there was nothing to worry about. Deep inside I must have known the pain of my parents and their anxiety about how to care for me for the rest of their lives. Trust me its not an easy thing for many of us to understand. Here, I was, their only son who was supposed to prove their support in the late years. And now, fate had turned my parents into my crutches for the rest of their lives. I didn’t know it then, or maybe I was too young to want to know it, but I can imagine how my parents would have died every single day trying to make me live. I may have been their only son but I was never really that close to my parents before this tragedy. I still remember being surprised seeing that immense grief in their eyes when my parents met me for the first time after the accident. Both had been trying to act very composed and mater-of-fact but the occasional quivering of lips would betray their desperate struggle to keep their pain hidden. Of course they already knew about the nature of my injuries and I didn’t. Come to think of it isn’t really that bad a deal getting really close to your parents at the cost of a few vertebras.

I shall not burden you with the details of my medical history except saying that they were endless. From pressure sores dissolving my skin and muscles to killing levels of poison in my blood I suffered it all and to top it all a less than brilliant team of doctors. Within six months of starting my physiotherapy I had managed to extend my first day’s 3-second successful sitting in the wheel chair to hanging in there almost normally for hours at end. But that was the only star on my report card. My bladder stopped working; I developed infections, lost weight and literally became a skeleton. My frustration increased with the desperation of my doctors who appeared clueless about putting an end to my misery. It came to a point where they started contemplating the option of chopping my feet off to stop the spread of infection any further. That’s when my parents, fully aware of their meager financial resources, nevertheless decided to take me to England for further treatment.

It was in Stoke Mandeville Hospital where it was diagnosed that I had fewer cells and more poison in my body. I had to lie on my face for over two months just to release the pressure on my wounds (talk about pillow talk). Then there were a whole new series of operations and helpful treatment that made it possible for me to put on clothes like normal people. Trust me, it does not matter even if somebody else is dressing you up, all that matters is to feel and look normal. When you have not worn anything but hospital gowns for months you simply cannot comprehend the delight of feeling your old shirt on your back. Thank you God for little mercies. I was improving dramatically in England. A few months of rehab could have done wonders for me but there was this slight problem. My parents love for me was endless but not their finances. My father was an honest hard working army officer and had lived more on pride than money. Within weeks their entire life savings were wiped out in just trying to make me survive. Giving me a “normal life” was simply beyond their means. I returned without my rehab but not without a new rather swanky looking wheel chair which incidentally has a silicon filled seat. The point here is that while many of you so called “normal” individuals are still hoping to get in touch with some silicon, I feel it every day. Anyway ever since my return, I have been plagued by one medical problem or another but frankly my medical problems have not caused as much pain or grief, as many people I have met over the years.

Let me sum up the problem: Attitude. People in my kind of predicament know it better than anybody else that they are not physically normal like others but neither are they inferior in any way. They are just different in appearance. And this is the key point apparently being missed by the majority of the people. Ignorant biases haunt the physically disabled more than their medical shortcomings. To cite one small example, the first college I applied to refused me admission on the grounds that I “would not be able” to take the pressure. How could they assume so without even giving me a try? Should I have gotten admission on the grounds of my grades or whether I walked into my class or rolled in my two wheeler? Luckily I was accepted by PAF College as a casual student and turned up in the top ten students in our send-up examinations. I was allowed to sit in the board examination by the college and in a hurry to make up for my lost time I took exams for the two years in one go. I passed. So what if special permission had to be sought for allowing a writer to pen down my answers. The interesting bit however is that even my doting parents at the time had thought it to be a needless stress for me. The silent message being sent to me unwittingly by my well wishing friends and family had been to accept my state and transform myself into a ‘happy vegetable’ content with my existence, starved of all challenges and achievements. Everyone almost had me convinced that the only thing worth concentrating was on trying to walk again, and not on walking tall.

Relax, take-it-easy were the phrases I heard most often in the initial years. No, I didn’t want to relax, I had been doing it for years in my wheel chair. Yes I want to walk. Oh, I want it more than any living soul but just because I am still unable to do it does it mean life should be put on the hold because my legs refused to listen to me. Just as my legs refused to listen to me, I stopped listening to the world. I enrolled as a regular student in Sir Syed College and soon the colour started returning. Once again I had friends around me. Sure many of them initially viewed me as an odd curiosity but unfailingly every relationship developed into a friendship. I was getting greedy once again. In England I had seen people in my condition drive around themselves and of course I wanted the same. More concerned about my own safety my parents were in no mood to buy a car for a son who couldn’t walk or even cough without assistance. It took a heavy blend of persistent arguing and emotional blackmailing for them to agree and finally I got myself a small automatic transmission car. The hand controls had to be imported specially for me. But if I thought getting my parents to agree had been the easy part, I was in for a tough surprise. The first time I sat in the driving seat all I could do was pull the specially modified throttle. Many months and patient friends later, I finally drove the car myself. We handicapped may have to take the long road at times but we do arrive. Remember that.

 Now it was time for getting a serious educational degree. Once again a combination of imagined bias and real problems almost frustrated me. Most of the business schools simply refused to entertain my admission application and the only one, which did, simply had too many stairs. Imagine losing out on a career ladder because of ones inability to climb stairs. But I have learnt one thing over the years: to unlearn the word impossible. Did I tell you by the way that finally I did manage to enroll in a private institution and earn my MBA degree. The degree has led to landing my first job and in fact I have typed out my story on my office computer (after office hours of course).

But before I end my story let me leave you with another, one; that of understanding and caring. If you think the physically handicapped people need your sympathy then you couldn’t be more wrong. What they need is a greater understanding of their peculiar needs, even more important a desire by the “normal” people to understand. Physically handicapped people are not half men or half women, in fact, they are twice the person than many around them. Because they must strive twice as hard, if not more, to achieve the same objective as the healthy people around them. Do you know it takes me more time to get dressed then it probably takes you to dress up, take your breakfast and make it for the early morning meeting in your office. But does that mean I should stop doing so because I am losing out in the time race. Just because you may be fortunate enough to be able to jump up three stairs at a time does it mean you should become insensitive to the need of building ramps for people like me?

Do we ask too much when we say judge us on the basis of merit and do not prejudge us on the basis of a stupid bias. Are handicapped the niggers of today’s world? I have no problem if someone walks over to me and asks about my medical problem or for that matter walks over and does not even mention a word about it? I neither feel intruded or pitied upon by either action but it all depends on the sincerity of the attitude. It’s not what you say or you don’t, it’s how that matters. Like I said earlier it is like walking. Majority of us can walk but how many of us can actually walk tall. Think about it.

“Sarmad Tariq also known as ‘The Chairman’ holds an MBA by education and is a story teller/motivational speaker. After meeting a swimming accident at the age of 15 he was left shoulder down paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair (hence the title). Sarmad believes that his physical confinement is the reason to his spiritual liberation. Resilience being the key to his success, he is living more than an active normal life and a mainstream career. Among regular achievements he also holds the world record of longest non-stop drive by a quadriplegic and drove his hand controlled car for 33 hours, covering a distance of 1,847 km from Khyber to Karachi. On 30th January 2005 he was the first ever and only wheelchair bound athlete in Lahore Marathon, by finishing the race distance of 42km in seven and a half hours he qualified to represent his country in ING New York City Marathon 2005 and made history for Pakistan by returning with a finisher’s medal. Currently he is busy working on his Handcycle to set a land speed record by taking it to 100 km/hrs. His passion to find his hidden abilities and stretching those to extreme limits has inspired many. He is married and lives in Islamabad.”