Monday, September 10, 2018

The Warrior Phoenix

Tulsi Vagjiani survived a plane crash that took her family away from her. And yet, nothing dimmed her shine. Day in and day out, Tulsi has lived many days surviving hardship after hardship, only to rise like a warrior each time. Here is her story.

I had a happy childhood with my parents and brother. It was full of laughter, and a wholesome, free childhood. We were, of course, being Indian, rooted to our culture. Togetherness, like most other values specific to the average Indian upbringing, was significant in our lives. In 1990, we decided to go to India to see my great grandfather, because it had been 23 years since my father had seen his grandfather. 

We are originally from Gujarat, and the place we were going to visit to see my great grandfather was a city called Bhuj. Our luggage went missing when we reached Bhuj, and had partly arrived in Mumbai - so we had to make a trip to Mumbai to collect it. We decided to go to Bangalore, as it was then known, and Goa. The trip to Goa was really for my brother and me, because we wanted to see the beach, and my parents wanted to go to Bangalore, so we decided to go to Bangalore first. I fought with my brother to for the window seat - but as we all know, the younger ones get their way invariably, so he wound up sitting by the window. I remember looking outside and seeing these beautiful blue skies and green pastures down below, and I remember being so enchanted by all of it. And then, all of a sudden, I heard my grandmother's voice. 

I was puzzled: this was the grandmother we had left behind in the UK - why was I hearing her voice? What was going on? I could hear her cry, and I could hear her saying something about how I had been in a really horrible accident, and that my parents and brother had been killed. In my head, though, I'm still having an argument with my brother about the window seat. But my grandmother's voice seemed to be coming from right next to me. At this time, I had no idea how much time had passed. It must have been around 2:00 PM in Bangalore when the incident happened, and my grandmother and uncles may have had to fly out from the UK - so a good amount of time did pass from the time I was on the flight, arguing with my brother. But none of what was happening made any sense.

The next memory I have is of a young medic came in,and told me that he would look after me. I had no concept of time at this point. I could hear my uncle and aunt, and a few of my cousins around me. In my mind, I kept thinking that they had come to surprise me on holiday. Their voices were very close to me, and they were all crying. Why would they cry? I couldn't understand any of it. Despite their own grief, though, at this time, they were trying to be strong for me. 

During this time, I was sedated, and had several surgeries for skin grafts. My family had witnessed all of this, and had all the time to get used to the changes in my appearance. They would mention that my skin was burned and that I looked different. But I had no idea what had changed about my appearance, in this time. They removed the bandages from my eyes one day, and then, I asked if I could see myself. What were all these burns everyone was talking about? When the bandages came off, I saw my hands for the first time, and then, a mirror was given to me, so I could see my face. I thought that it was a joke and that someone had drawn the face in the mirror. But when the eyes in the reflection blinked back at me when I blinked, and when the mouth moved when I moved my mouth, it hit me. 

Heart of hearts, I believed that my parents would come back for me, and that my family was holding it for me - I didn't expect all that had happened to be true.I was just ten at the time. My family was holding up, trying to be strong. 

Being in the hospital was nice, because I was always treated normally, and had a lot of care. When I left the hospital and went back to life, I attended school. Both, primary and secondary school were wonderful - but it is the commute to and back, that were horrible. People would bully, stare, pass comments, and sometimes even scurry away as if they were going to catch something from being in my presence. 

After school, I went on to studying Hotels and Tourism at college. I learned a lot - but the hotel industry was too cold for me. Then, I studied health care, and worked in an old age home and then did counselling. It was a huge turning point for me because I learned a lot, for myself, too. I got to learn the art of self-care, and then went on to doing a degree in pilates and massage. 

I realized at this point that the damage on my muscles was deep, but I had never been stopped by my body - I had always been stopped my mental limitation. I noticed how much my body had been changing. 

Around this time, my BP had shot up rather high one day, and I went to see the doctor. The physician said that he knew someone in the kidney department, and said that I had to consult with him to check if I had an infection, or if my kidneys were failing. I had a biopsy, which had diagnosed me with end stage renal failure, and my kidneys were working about 15% at the time. This was in April 2006. When the doctor mentioned this, I thought I was dying. But my aunt, who had visited the doctor with me, said that the doctor had told me that I had options - either dialysis or a transplant. I hadn't heard it because I broke down. 

While they explained dialysis and transplants to me, my family began to get tested to see if they could be my donors. But for reasons such as their own illness or not being a proper match, none of them could be donors for me. I was connected to a machine for about three years. There was a time when I would set up my machine, let the dialysis go on while I would study. By the end of it, I graduated with a 2:1. 

For the first time, I recognized my achievement. Up until then, I had never given myself any credit - not even for surviving a plane crash, not even for making it so far in life. 

I was redoing my house shortly after, when I received a phone call from my doctor close to around midnight, telling me that there was a kidney, a perfect match for me, and I had five minutes to decide. I didn't even think I would get a match - I had gone about dialysis like normal and went on with life. But I decided to go for it, and called my auntie and uncle, who took me to the hospital. I was intensely tired, at that time, and was wheeled into surgery. It went perfectly, and everyone thought I was ready to get home soon. I began to walk on the evening of the surgery, and went to the bathroom - and the doctor even asked me how I had managed to do this. I told him that I was simply determined. 

Though everything was perfect at first, it soon came to light that the urethra had gotten blocked and my urea was collecting in my body. I had to have a catheter placed near the kidney to drain the urethra, and then, another surgery set it right. Around this time, my White Blood Cell count had dropped drastically and that meant that my immunity was low. I was kept in isolation, so as not to catch anything. In that time, I couldn't take it. I felt so upset, and kept wondering why all this happened to me when I was doing everything right. And it came to me at that precise moment: I had to take control of what I could, and let go of what I couldn't control. Though my extended family was there for me, they couldn't be expected to give me the unconditional care that my parents would have given me had they been there with me. That understanding changed everything. I came to understand that alcohol, drugs and men were not the answer. I realized that I had devalued myself so much, that it reflected in the quality of men that I had let into my life. I realized that the men I had been with were the kind of men I'd be ashamed to introduce to my father, had he been alive. 

But things changed, and love did enter my life. I was surprised, at first, because I thought love happened only to pretty people, and that I wasn't likely to find it. But here I am, with a partner who loves me as much as I love him, who isn't shy of telling me that I am beautiful, every single day.

I see so many phenomenal women around me, but these women don't even know how amazing they are. It's terribly sad that women suffer in silence and are made to internalize that they are worth so little. 

Today, I teach pilates, and am a motivational speaker. I am heading to Africa in September, to work with burn survivors, specifically towards their social integration. Today, I am more confident, and accepting of myself. I began to talk about my story, and sharing with more and more people.