“Life does not end after a spinal cord injury”
Ashla Rani is associated with Pallium India, an organisation that provides palliative care. She works with people with disabilities and also acts as a counselor for children whose families have been devastated by serious illnesses. She also won Kerala Government’s “youth icon” award in 2017 for her work. I got to know all the above and more about her when we met in Coimbatore in 2019 for Swarga Foundation’s I’m Special Calendar. Their theme was women with disabilities and Ashla definitely stood out.
Ashla Rani’s #LifeBeyondSCI
I was born and brought up in a small village called Kannur in Kerala. I have an older sister. My father died when I was 8 years old. It was a devastating experience. During those days I found refuge in books. I left my village to do masters in computer applications and went on to work with an IT company in Chennai for the next four years. I was mesmerised by the beaches and spent most of my weekends watching waves. I can still feel wet sand under my feet!
In August 2010, I came home for holidays and while returning to Chennai fell out of a running train. I was travelling in sleeper class. I had my dinner and was trying to throw the waste (not a good habit) through the open door. The door got closed pushing me out. I came into consciousness after two days in a hospital. I couldn’t move my limbs. I was told that my C5/C6 vertebrae were fractured and there is a contusion in the spinal cord.
I stayed in different hospitals for the next four years as physiotherapy was unheard in my village. I went to CMC Vellore briefly and then continued physiotherapy at a clinic in Ernakulam for almost three years. CMC Vellore gave me a better understanding about spinal cord injury. I learnt to sit up on my own and propel my wheelchair. As I was there for a long time, most of the physiotherapists were friendly with me. One of them encouraged me to try for an online job. With their encouragement and a push from my mother, I contacted the company where I was working with before my accident. They were very supportive and allowed me to work from home. Finally I resumed my work from the hospital after one and a half years. It was a life changing decision.
Life beyond spinal cord injury
SCI changed my life so drastically. It made me look at life from a totally different angle. My priorities in life changed. I learnt to appreciate small things in my life, like sunrises, a walk in the neighbourhood etc. I didn’t want to go back to my village where I would have ended up whiling away my time watching television or reading a book and waiting for death. I started thinking about making use of what was left in my life (I can use my hands partially, but I depend on others for my daily activities).
At that time I read a news story about the death of M P Anilkumar, a Flying Officer with the Indian Air Force; who was also a quadriplegic. His story inspired me a lot. I wrote to his friends on social media requesting their help to find a place where I can stay and work. One of them (I call her aunt now) found Pallium India, a charitable trust that provides quality palliative care and effective pain relief for patients in India. I wrote to the chairman Dr Rajagopal explaining my situation and asked whether I can volunteer. He called me back in two hours. Two months later, I found myself in a cab travelling to Trivandrum to stay and work at Pallium India. Here, I receive the care I need on a daily basis. And I started my work as executive assistant to Dr Rajagopal and later started to spend part of my time with the rehabilitation center we run here and with children who lost their parents. I soon fell in love with palliative care and found the purpose of my life in it.
During those many years I spent to regain my physical abilities, I had totally forgotten who I was as a person. Then I got a friend who would ask me questions about my hobbies, my likes and dislikes. In order to answer those, I started searching my old memories which almost felt like a past birth. I found my likes for walking, nature, books etc. I began to venture out in my wheelchair. Those small evening walks refreshed my soul. Eventually I regained my confidence and started travelling to other places for either training or work. It took me even longer to muster the courage to plan a holiday.
Two such trips hold a special place in my heart. I took 5 days off from work and went to Sivananda Ashram in Neyyar dam for a yoga vacation. There I learnt some basic yoga, enjoyed the sunset, sunrises, and walks around the village. There I found myself. They were so supportive and gave me a totally different schedule to ensure I get a chance to enjoy my time. They had wheelchair accessible rooms and most of their premises was also accessible.
Secondly, I took two flights and travelled 3 hours in a car (I dread long road travels) to visit a friend for a week. It was last year. We had a gala time. I learnt from these two trips that nothing is impossible when you have friends who are as crazy as you! Jokes apart, for me travel and nature are so intimate and I can enjoy it only with people who share the same interests.
My first international trip on work and two other holiday trips hold a special place in my heart. I went to San Francisco for screening of the documentary film Hippocratic exploring the life story of Dr Rajagopal. There I met the legend Dr B J Miller! It still feels like a dream. Abhi and Neethu hosted me at San Jose and took time to show me around. Riding my wheelchair in an accessible Japanese Garden Park and Golden Bridge were so different from being in India and I enjoyed it so much.
Message for people who are newly injured
Life has not ended. Maybe you will find yourself in a completely new place and time, but there still are days which are productive, independent, meaningful. You may not see it today. When it is so hard, take one day at a time, be kind to yourself, be patient to yourself and you will start seeing the new path.
Check out the video below where Ashla opens up about her recovery journey following her spinal cord injury in a train accident and how she is now on a mission to fight for inclusivity, equality and accessibility for those living differently abled: