Ashla Rani welcomes me with a smile that reaches her eyes. At the office of Pallium India in Thiruvananthapuram, she has her hands full as executive assistant to Dr M R Rajagopal, chairman of the palliative care centre. Sitting on her wheelchair, with the partial control that she has over her upper limbs, she coordinates his appointments and travel itinerary. She has been here for three years now, and is one among the six recipients of the Kerala Government’s Youth Icon Awards for 2016.
It was a near-fatal train accident in 2010, when she was 28, that left her a quadriplegic. And it was at the age of 32, that she had to start her life afresh. She makes it sound simple: “There were so many loving and caring people around me. My mother, Janaki, has been with me since that accident. Then there are my doctors who were very kind to me. None of them told me that I would never walk again. They always said, ‘Let that happen when it has to. Until then, make the best of what you have now’. So it was about taking small steps, learning to do things as the need arose. I realised that I should never stop trying,” she says.
A native of Kannur, she fell off the train on her way to Chennai, where she was working as an IT professional. She was standing near the door trying to throw out the food waste after dinner. But the door banged shut behind her, throwing her out of the train. “I have not gone back to my home after that. My life has revolved around hospitals since then. It was at the rehabilitation centre of Christian Medial College at Vellore that I started learning how to deal with it,” she says, almost matter-of-factly.
She had to relearn how to use cutlery, write and type on a laptop. Since she can’t use her fingers, she now uses the knuckles of the little fingers on both hands to type on the laptop. She can write with a pen with soft nibs, like gel pens. “But don’t ask me how I hold the pen. I place it in a particular angle between my fingers. However, the way I hold it one day may not be the same the next!” she says.
She can now hold a spoon, thanks to the training she received at the rehabilitation centre at Vellore. “They have different types of spoons to train patients and it took me nearly eight months of practice. Now I use a regular steel spoon, which is not too heavy,” she says.
There was inspiration in the form of late M P Anil Kumar, a fighter pilot who was paralysed neck down, but went on to become a writer, typing on the keyboard with a mouth-held stick. “I came to know about him only after his death. He couldn’t move his hands, but he never gave up and I realised how lucky I was, compared to him. I got in touch with the Facebook platform that kept his memories alive. Interactions with them gave me a lot of positivity and hope. They have been a constant source of encouragement and support,” Ashla adds.
While undergoing intense physiotherapy sessions at a hospital in Kochi, she heard about Pallium India from a friend. It is a charitable trust that provides palliative care and pain relief for patients across India. “I didn’t want to go back home because I knew it would be very difficult to continue my physiotherapy. I sent a mail to ‘Rajagopal sir’ explaining my medical condition and expressing my desire to work for the organisation. He replied within hours, and a few days later, I was there to meet him,” she says.
Today, she is actively involved with the half-way home, a rehabilitation project of Ministry of Social Justice, for those who are paraplegic, confined to their wheelchairs. “Their grief stems from their helplessness. We encourage them to stay positive, sometimes taking them out for a ‘walk’ along the footpath. They also attend vocational training classes. I can relate to them and perhaps that’s why they tell me that I inspire them. Since I am also on a wheelchair, they are motivated to come out of their shell,” she says.
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