August 26, 2022 – Preethi Srinivasan was 18 years old with a bright future in sports and academia. A medal in statewide swimming, she was also a skilled cricketer with dreams of representing her native India in cricket.
Her academic achievements have been equally excellent and she has enrolled for a 5-year MBA course in Chennai, India. “My life was perfect, the possibilities seemed endless,” she says in an interview.
Srinivasan was on a college trip with friends in the ocean. She was standing in thigh-deep water when the sand slid under her feet and stumbled. As an experienced swimmer, when she realized she was falling, she dived into the water.
“As soon as my face was submerged under water, I felt a shock-like sensation traveling through my body, and immediately I couldn’t move anything,” Srinivasan tells. “I tried to stand up, but nothing happened.” From that moment on, she was paralyzed under her neck.
“My life ended as I knew it, but a whole new life began,” she says. “I didn’t know yet what form that would take.”
Serenity to accept
Annually, there are an estimated 17,730 newcomers Spinal cord injuries in the United States and from 250,000 to 500,000 worldwide. The US Senate has designated September as National Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month.
People who have had a spinal cord injury face not only practical, medical, and financial challenges, but also the feeling that their lives have been permanently turned upside down, according to Rex Marco, M.D., Chief Medical Ambassador for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. This can lead to feelings of hopelessness and loss of meaning.
Marco himself had a spinal cord injury that paralyzed him when he was in his fifties. He was a nationally renowned surgeon and musculoskeletal oncologist as well as an active snowboarder, mountain biker and yoga practitioner.
That all changed when the tire of his mountain bike stalled in a dive along a trail, causing him to bump his head over the handlebars. He heard a crackling sound but did not feel any pain. He knew that if the crackling sound came from his neck, he might be paralyzed.
“I’ve been doing breathing exercises to find calm for several years. In that moment, I used them to calm myself down.
When a friend touched his leg and hand and could not feel the touch, he realized that he had broken his neck.
While he was lying there, he thought of the Serenity Prayer: “Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” Asking for calm to accept whatever physical limits await him.
“I knew there was less than a 5% chance of walking again. I may never work again, and I may never conceive my unborn child.” Marco also knew he had to get to the hospital ASAP, so he helped coordinate the rescue and got to the hospital and then the operating room in less than 3 hours, which he described as a “miracle”.
He considers himself lucky that he never gave up because he was already using practices that deepened his sense of meaning and relied on them after the accident.
“I knew it was important for me to do my best to live in the present and not think about the past or worry about the future; just try to smell, taste, listen and feel. I did it throughout the day and tried to be as present as possible.”
‘Why no I?’
After her accident, Srinivasan initially fell into despair. “I didn’t adjust well to what happened and tried to escape this new reality in any way I could,” she says.
I felt a sharp sense of loss. “For the first 18 years of my life, I effortlessly excelled in every field, and the future seemed to be full of limitless possibilities,” she says. “Then, in a split second, it was all over, and I found myself having to adjust to life in a wheelchair.”
What was especially painful was the way the others treated her. “I’ve looked at my life all my life, I’ve been seen as a role model and a hero, and now all of a sudden people look down on me as if I don’t exist anymore. I couldn’t stand it. I felt invisible and invalidated and tried to shut myself out for two years.”
I wondered what she could have done to deserve such a fate. “I was shattered. Who was I? I didn’t know, and I don’t want to know. I just wanted to die.”
Her parents’ unconditional love and wisdom slowly brought her out and gave her a deeper understanding of life. Srinivasan’s father advised her not to ask, “Why me? Why did this happen to me?” Instead, advise him to ask, “Why Not I?”
He encouraged Srinivasan to use her injury as an opportunity. He told her, “Your body is going.” “Everyone’s body will go on—if not today, then 10 years from today, and if not 10 years, then 50 years. Look within and find what is within you that can never be taken away, that can never go away.”
It was the beginning of a deep inner journey. Srinivasan began to express herself through mouth plates. “Slowly, I’m starting to get emotional about life again,” she says. “My parents gave me a beautiful spiritual bloodline, and through grace, I began to heal from within.”
There is a plan for me
Several weeks before the accident, Marco started a practice that begins the day by listing three things he’s grateful for, three things he’s excited about, daily focus, daily affirmation, and a daily exercise plan. He has put this practice into his new reality.
“I felt grateful for life, grateful for my breath, and grateful for the recovery program,” he says. “I was excited to see my family, friends and caregivers. My daily affirmation was, ‘I am enough,’ and my daily exercise plan was to get out of bed and sit in the chair.” At night, when he couldn’t sleep well, the nurses played a guiding role Meditation for him.
“These practices gave me meaning and purpose, and I knew there was a plan and there was a plan for me, even though I wasn’t sure what the plan was,” he says.
Eventually, Marco got involved with the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. “Christopher Reeve was my childhood hero, and I watched him play Superman,” Marko says. “I remember the day he was injured, and I remember his appearance at the Oscars when he was on a respirator, which was very inspiring to me.”
Marco remembered that speech when he was in the intensive care unit. “I knew I wanted to do something that he did, which was try to find a cure and raise money for spinal cord injury research, which is part of my role at the foundation, as well as raise awareness of mental health, and introduce more people to mindfulness and mindfulness-based meditation.”
When Srinivasan’s father was alive, he “taken care of everything,” allowing her and her mother to be in a “bubble of safety, secluded and isolated.” But after his sudden death of cardiac arrest in 2007, there was no source of financial support. A few years later, her mother underwent heart surgery.
“We started wondering what would happen to me if my mother could no longer take care of me, and we started looking for long-term care facilities in India equipped to take care of someone in my case,” Srinivasan says.
I was shocked to discover that, in all of India, there was no long-term care facility in which a person with a spinal cord injury (SCI) could live with dignity. “If the parents or family of a woman in my case are unable to take care of her, there is nowhere for them to go,” she says.
She began hearing terrifying stories “Family members of women with SCI often think of the disabled daughter as shameful and refuse to feed or take care of her. Two families even poisoned their daughters and encouraged them to kill themselves.”
Lack of support for people with spinal cord injuries led to the establishment of Srinivasan Free spiritan organization dedicated to setting up long-term care centers across India that are equipped to permanently care for people with severe disabilities and ensure they are trained for jobs and financial security, it says.
In addition to her work with Soulfree, Srinivasan is a motivational speaker, holds a master’s degree in psychology, and is a senior research fellow pursuing a PhD at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras.
“I know I will survive on this earth for a greater purpose,” she says. “I am so happy to be completely alive in this moment and trying to spread love, light and laughter in this world.”
Research has shown People who have family, friends, a supportive community, and a spiritual connection have an easier time dealing with the challenges of finding a new identity, meaning, and purpose after a spinal cord injury.
The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation National Paralysis Resource Center Offers free resources about living with paralysis, including a blog in which people with spinal cord injuries describe how they found meaning after their accident. Get psychotherapy or get involved in a support group (in person or online) or peer counseling, for example through an organization Peer and Family Support Programcan help, too.
More resources and suggestions can be found at: