As much cliché’d as it is – let me begin with the age-old adage – “When life gives you lemons, you go make a lemonade out of it” For.. I am and will be, in dearth of words to explain how Hema Subhash, took the accident that made her an ‘above the knee amputee’ as an opportunity to ‘better the world for herself and others who are physically challenged.’
Our conversation was not an hour-long chat, neither was it an interview of any sorts – it didn’t take her more than a minute to form a camaraderie with me – a friend of a friend – whom she had never seen before. While crafting beauty is a god-gifted talent, spreading the art of finding beauty in everything is her self-made goal – and quite an infectious one at that.
On February 02, 2010, as Hema steps out of a bus, the negligent driver takes off causing Hema to fall and the rear wheels run over her left knee. Unfortunately, the excruciating pain did not make her unconscious as one would imagine or even hope for. She could see her bones and muscles dangling amidst the blood that was gushing out of her leg. While the people around were stuck in trance, she wasn’t..she held onto a person’s leg and begged to be taken to the hospital.
At the hospital, since the condition demanded it, the doctors had to ask her parents to sign the agreement that her leg could be amputated above the knee while she was sedated for the surgery. Her initial moments of recovery were far from being remorse or furious though she did go through each of these in different bouts and different periods. She was happy to be alive and she felt she never valued life or her body more. She remembers her conversation with her brother. “Leg is gone..but I’m here,” she said..somewhere in between the joy of getting the life back and the anxiety of dealing with it sans a limb now. Her brother comforted her and urged her to see this as an ‘opportunity to be stronger’.
“I’m not denying the moments of anxiety, self-pity, remorse, or anger. Even with the driver, I just wished he wasn’t that neglectful and that the system valued the life of the citizens better to be letting him go scot-free like that. He or his peers would not worry about the consequences of their actions as they know the way around the system. We are perceived to be the ‘better off’ in society and we are left with a meagre amount of 8 lakhs after filing the case and fighting for it for years. This is in the civil court. The high court case is still pending, and I could be blamed as by now I don’t see the point in pursuing much.”
“Help poured in from unexpected quarters and I’m grateful to each one of them. Linda – I had no idea that a total stranger could take you from the road and act with such compassion like she was your family forever – which she is now. Mindtree – I had worked with them for hardly 1.5 years at a junior level when this happened and both the Managing Directors – Ashok Soota and Subroto Bagchi came to visit me. It showed that they valued the lives beyond the so-called term of service or designations which is a rarity to find. Subroto even visited my home after I got discharged. They reassured me in every possible way – told me that my job would be safe until I recover and feel good to be back in office and my insurance was doubled.”
Such thoughtfulness in times of distress not just earns respect but inspires people who receive it to pay it forward.
Hema spent the next couple of months in recovery. She did undergo systematic training and had a physical trainer focussing on her fitness and diet. She realized that kind of support is not available in hospitals or elsewhere in India, but when she created that for herself, she knew she benefitted well.
“Each step back to normality was painful and with loads of apprehensions. There were moments when I wished one part of mine hadn’t vanished overnight or even that it appeared miraculously just like it vanished. There were crazy things I thought of like ‘cloning’ my leg or cloning me and taking one leg of mine. I even called up people and checked about it” – she laughs at herself as she says it. Apparently, it is doable – but the law is not in favour.
She was back to work, marriage and childbirth sooner than she would have imagined – of course each with its own perks and pain. While getting back to work for almost a year was a relief, travelling 3-4 hours in Bangalore traffic wasn’t. While it was a blessing to be accepted as is by your boyfriend, the sudden realization that an ‘able-bodied’ person is accepting a ‘not-so-able bodied’ for life, came with its own tensions. While childbirth like for any mother out there was a blissful experience, it brought with it the complications. But these were the first wee steps in her answer to the disaster.
The mishap and the situation could perhaps alter her situation, change her looks and disrupt the way she functioned – but never her plans. In fact, she had more to plan when you would think life gave her a little lesser to plan with.
In the brief period she got to take care of her baby, she realized the need to give others the kind of rehabilitation she went through in whichever ways she can. She kept reading up and searching for similar people and started small with a Facebook/Whatsapp group. “We were just five of us who were amputees and would meet up for a coffee” When they realized that the discussions and getting out as a group together boosted their spirits, they searched for other amputees across Bangalore to form a larger group.
They realized that as a group they had more energy to participate in public gatherings, take all the staring, shed inhibitions and jump right into the act. She slowly started getting contacts and friends and by word of mouth, the group expanded, and they started participating in marathons and cycling events across Bangalore. It is at this point that Hema meets Madhumita Venkataraman who heads the Diversity and Inclusion for Coco-Cola in the South Asia region. One of the earliest members, it was Madhumita’s idea to include people with all kinds of difficulties. This inclusion and wider participation gave way to the formation of a non-profit – OSAAT.
OSAAT (One-Step-At-A-Time) was formed with a vision: Provide systematic rehab programs for the disabled to return to life and facilitate social participation, friendship and inclusion. They had three parts to their program:
1. Awareness & Advocacy – yoga workshops and disability awareness;
2. Adapted Art – includes dance and theatre classes culminating in a public performance;
3. Adapted fitness – swimming camps, marathons, cycling meetup, hiking event etc
In October 2015, they participated as a group in the Bangalore Marathon. It was the first time that in Bangalore, PWDs were participating in a public performance as an organized group.
On March 2016, OSAAT organized its first public event – 10-day free swimming camp.
The PWDs who joined OSAAT were from different walks of life and had different disabilities to cope with – but they all had one thing to say – that OSAAT has helped them come out of their cocoons and inspired them to celebrate the life and the ‘abilities’ they have got despite the disability. As I said, in the beginning, Hema’s zest for life is infectious. It is no wonder that from 5 to 60, OSAAT grew to a non-profit of 150 odd members within a couple of years.
As the accident took away one limb not only did she replace it with such ease and grace, but she carved one ‘wing’ for adventure sports as well! While gardening and mosaic designing is her craft which she parted to some in OSAAT, she got the adrenaline rush from trying things that were meant to be pushing her limits.
She does yoga, cardio and strength training everyday at home and follows a strict diet to be able to maintain herself well. “You have to find time regularly for exercise. Any impairment, you must compensate, otherwise, it leads to further complications, esp with conditions like amputation you tend to be prone to Osteoporosis, joint imbalances, spine dislocation if you do not focus on strength training. As I’ve gone through motherhood and ageing I must stress more on being fit.”
“As an exercise I love swimming and I can’t begin to explain the benefits it brings along. For an amputee, any other physical activity would require aids which would give vertical pressure to the hip-joint. While swimming takes your weight, it requires your muscles to move improving your muscle mass, oxygen intake and providing you with the right amount of cardio. I’ve tried swimming out into the Pacific Ocean – where the waves break, it is the hardest place for anybody to swim and even more if you don’t have two legs to stabilize yourself.”
She goes hiking with her family (5-6kms). Did rock climbing though it was difficult as the prosthetics kept slipping off the holes in the wall. Tried snorkelling twice. Went for Paddleboarding at Missions Bay, San Diego. And…did Sky Diving – in 2016, December – the day after the Disability Day when she jumped with another amputee who was the trainer.
The lemons were sour indeed, but her lemonade took the sweetness from her. If it had touched and inspired me to do things I was plain lazy to do just listening to her, it has transformed the lives of so many people with disabilities and changed the attitude towards disability in India. No twist of fate can amputate that wings she has carved for the many out there that have taken them to heights where all limbs and bones couldn’t take people to.