In the summer of 2002, as part of my training at Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul, I dived into a swimming pool only to come out crippled. Miscalculating the depth of water, my head collided with the bottom of the pool and my neck broke. When I woke up in a hospital, I saw “quadriplegia” scribbled along with my name on a clipboard hanging above my head.
As different thoughts raced through my mind, I was transferred to another facility after a painful journey. My medical report revealed that because of a fracture, dislocation of fourth and fifth vertebra and severe compression of the spinal cord, I won’t be able to stand on my feet for the rest of my life.
“No, this cannot be true” – was my initial thought. I couldn’t wrap my head around this new reality and asked for a miracle to happen so I can walk again and fulfil my dreams.
My family arrived to see me and while they remained cheerful, the pain in their eyes was not easy to hide. I was the first person in my entire village Serai Naurang to join Pakistan Army; my father had always dreamt of seeing me as a soldier and my younger brothers following in my footsteps.
In the following months, a traction weight was fixed to my skull and my spinal surgery was delayed several times and at last postponed due to high fever. Because I had no mobility, I developed severe pressure sores which my doctors feared could be fatal. But luckily, after around eight months, they healed.
Back then, the Armed Forces Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine was just starting; it was not up and running as yet so I could not be rehabilitated there. I was eventually transferred back home and the most difficult phase of my life began. I felt like a bird which left its nest and flew high above in the skies but fell back with its wings and legs broken.
Before the diving accident, I was one of the fittest individuals on earth. I could run one mile under six minutes and nine miles under 70 minutes with a rifle on my shoulder and a small pack and helmet. I could climb ropes and take a dip in the freezing waters of Abbottabad winter when ordered by my seniors. But now, my body was a living corpse. I needed the help of two individuals to transfer me from my bed to a wheelchair and back. People who had praised me before were taking pity on me now.
But I was a soldier with a great fighting spirit. The military training had taught me to never give up and I decided to live a full life despite my shortcomings.
I helped myself in the absence of a specialised physiotherapist in my area by learning about my injury on the internet. After months of hard work, I finally managed to transfer myself to my wheelchair on my own as well as perform tasks such as eating, writing and typing independently. I rehabilitated myself for an injury which usually makes patients travel abroad and spend millions.
I completed my education. First, I got admission in Bachelors in Computer Studies at the Virtual University but couldn’t continue beyond two semesters because of accessibility issues. Then I enrolled in University of Science and Technology in Bannu as a private candidate and graduated with a master’s degree. I also learnt about Android application development and other computer skills through YouTube videos.
I groomed my brothers to join the armed forces; one is now a Major in the Pakistan Army and the other is serving as a Lieutenant in the Pakistan Navy. It was a big achievement for someone who was moved out of the training academy in a stretcher to see his brothers in uniform.
As I helped myself through the recovery process, I realised many other patients in Pakistan continue to suffer due to lack of adequate rehabilitation services in country for spinal cord injuries. Also, many are not lucky to have an internet connection and understanding of English language to do something on their own. With no comprehensive book on this injury available in Urdu, I decided to write one.
After months of research and hard work, my book on living an active life after a spinal cord injury is ready to be published soon; it has been checked and praised by many rehabilitation experts. Typed on a smartphone, the book talks about each and every problem that a person faces after this kind injury and how to possibly deal with it.
While this accident taught me many lessons, the starkest realisation was how difficult it is for a wheelchair user to live in Pakistan. Accessibility is an issue all over the country but the situation becomes worse in rural areas as wheelchair users face physical, economic, social and attitudinal barriers to progress which prevent them from becoming productive, independent and respectable members of the society.
As my journey continues, I plan to play my part in making Pakistan an accessible, welfare state by using the power of my pen and other possible means.