Monday, June 19, 2017

The unstoppable

Shalini Saraswathi
Shalini Saraswathi is a quadruped amputee, having lost both her arms and her legs. But then, that hasn't stopped her from achieving her dreams, and how! Yashasvini Rajeshwar speaks to her.

Could you tell us your story to the extent that makes you comfortable? You have spoken about vacationing in Cambodia, coming back and falling sick with a fever. It turned out to be a very rare bacterial infection. Did the doctors struggle to diagnose it?
Cambodia was on my list of places to travel to, and we headed for a vacation on our 4th anniversary. I came back from it to handle one of our toughest client visits. The month was eventful - the trip, I found out I was pregnant, we were setting up the new home we had recently bought.

Towards the end of March, while I was at work I started feeling feverish and went home early. My husband was travelling, so I was home alone. I called my in-laws and asked them to send me some dinner. The next day I felt worse and it only got worse from there. The fever came along with shivers and extreme fatigue. We visited my gynaecologist and he recommended blood tests. The blood tests confirmed an extremely low platelet count. The obvious conclusions were dengue or malaria. I got admitted into the hospital and after a really tough first night in the hospital, I was moved to the ICU. And that is my last memory.

Over the next few days, I deteriorated further with me finally moving onto a life support system. My heart stopped twice, my kidneys failed, my lungs were filled with water. The doctor confirmed a 2% chance of survival. The doctors did struggle with identifying the bacteria since it is not known in India. There has been only one reported case of Rickettsial with morts in the world before, and that person did not make it through.

The doctors went back with a fine comb over the last few months of my life. They contacted doctors in Cambodia and that is how the confirmed the cause of the entire drama. The bacteria is contracted from dog ticks and I had petted stray dogs on the trip. Plus, my pregnancy had led to complications. Luckily I slept through it all. I woke up on April 5th, my birthday. In my head, I thought it was the day after my admission into the ICU.

The ICU is a crazy place to be in. There are way too many nurses making notes and checking on you. They wake you at 4 AM to give you a bath. I spent the next few days just lying around and watching the doctors. I desperately wanted the pipes off me and that was my priority. My next goal was to get out of the ICU. I did notice my arms at that time. They were dark blue and swollen, with massive blisters on them. My legs were also in a similar state. I did not mull over them too much then.

A few days later, i was moved to the ward and my ordeal of sleeplessness and excruciating pain began. One day, the psychologist arrived and broke the news. He said there was a chance of amputation of all limbs. I told him, “if that is what it is, then we will deal with it. You guys must have thought this through before talking to me.” I pushed it out of my mind. I knew a miracle would happen.

A week later, I was discharged and my primary goal at that time was to be pain free. I was relieved to be home. But the pain just would not go away. In fact, it got worse. I tried alternative therapies, but then gangrene set it. We moved to Ayurveda, which probably saved my body and soul. My body began to heal and things began to change until I fractured my left arm. When they were operating the fracture, they had to amputate it. I lost my right arm to auto amputation.

In the days following the amputation, where did you draw your strength from? What/who was your
I just lived one day at a time, I focussed on just getting through one day at a time. Reading saved me - it was my perfect escape. I learnt classical music. I wrote. I did the things that Istill could. My friends and family played the role of a wonderful support system. My girl gang visited me every single day. On weekends, my home was filled with people who mattered to me and loved me. Everyone did their bit to make sure I was entertained. I spent hours talking to my nurse Mala. For the first year, I continued to work from home, so that kept me occupied 

Many do not even know what auto-amputation is. Did you? What was the thought process that led to the decision to amputate your legs too?
I never knew that auto amputation could happened. I was at home, lying in bed with my hand sticking out of the bed, talking to my brother-in-law sitting next me. I had a shooting pain in my shoulder and before I even knew what had happened, a part of my hand was lying in his hand. A look passed through us - me, my mom and my brother-in-law. My hand was bleeding, so my brother-in-law bandaged it up. That day was my sister’s housewarming ceremony so everyone was there. My brother-in-law told everyone and my nurse arrived to check on the bandage. Everyone else followed, not really sure how to react.

For some reason, I was relieved. I just knew it was a sign to move on. We called my Ayurvedic doctor in Kerala, who arrived a few days later. We agreed that amputating the legs was the next logical step. All these days, our primary intention was to save the one hand. Now that that was out of the way, we had to move on. I was happy because that meant I could finally get out of bed. I was tired of waiting. I was holding on for the rest of them but I just wanted to get out. I had seen two rooms and a balcony for two years of my life. I was carried around. I missed just getting out and seeing the world. I just wanted to move on.

I also think all this time gave me the chance to accept amputation as something to look forward to, not as something negative. It would let me do more than I currently did.

Today you are run and identify primarily as a blade runner. How did the journey of running start? Were you into sports even while you were growing up?
While I was growing up, I ran for my house in school. I was part of the volleyball team. Most of my physical activities were restricted to dancing. I'm a trained Bharathnatyam dancer, and i dabbled in salsa and kathak. I went for a dance aerobics class. That pretty much sums up my physical activities.

Post-prosthetics, I just wanted to get fit. I had sat at home and gained weight. I did go to a few gyms and the poor guys did not know what to do with me. I met Coach Aiyappa, and he said "I’ve never worked with anyone like you before, but let’s try". That is how it all began. We started with just walking, and then it progressed to fast walking, jogging, and then running. Simultaneously, I also started a pilates class with Anisha Naidu, who worked on flexibility, core strength and working from within. The blades followed through last year and I ran 10 kilometres in May 2016.

You are training for Tokyo 2020. What event are you looking to participate in? Tell us about that experience and what it means to you.
Well, it is an aspiration, but honestly, it’s going to be extremely tough. People train all through their lives for the Olympics, and here I am, starting in my late 30s. The plan is to sprint short distances, 100 or 200 metres. We are still in the process of figuring out where my strength lies.  I have been someone who has just taken things as they have come. I am following a path. My only input to the process is to give my 100% in terms of training. We cross the rest of the bridges as they come. I’m just hoping there are going to be so few quadruple amputees, that I place anyway. There may be just three participants! 

You now speak for corporate audiences and support a variety of causes. Your new page BeingYou has garnered almost 17,000 likes in less than a month, and the stories are being picked up and spoken about. Your own story has gotten 30 lakh views! Why do you think these stories are important? What led to BeingYou?
Post-disability, my life has been extremely enriching. I’ve just met so many positive, lovely people and my life is just more wonderful. Today, if you read the papers or log in online, all you see is murder, corruption, rape, the whole hog. It makes you feel like the world is a terrible place.

BeingYouwas initially created when we wanted to bring out an amputee calendar. We featured 13 different amputees across India. Preeti [Rai] and I worked hard to put this together with few others like Kumaran, Kanick Raj, and Sithara, who are all part of the ad world. They made this a reality.

We got a response that shocked us. Clearly there is a dearth of good positive stories. Every one of us has our daily struggles. Some of us cope with them better than others do. The ones who succeed are the ones who are persistent and stay positive no matter what. That is how BeingYou came about. We consciously put out positive stories - because humanity is largely made up of nice people and we need to let people know that there is hope. We never give up.

You can visit BeingYouhere.