Beyond Ability: Life Story of a Women who lost all 4 Limbs.Ability India
Shalini Saraswathi lost her limbs to a rare bacterial infection she contracted while on a holiday in Cambodia in February 2012. “Around a month after the holiday, I started feeling exhausted and slightly feverish,” says Shalini, 39, wiping off her tears with the stub of her arm. “Since I was pregnant at that time, my doctor attributed these symptoms to the pregnancy. My condition deteriorated rapidly, however, and on April 1, 2012, I was admitted to the ICU of Bengaluru’s Manipal Hospital. I had a multi-organ failure, my heart stopped beating and my lungs were filled with water. No one thought I would make it.” She also lost the baby. Shalini recovered from her critical condition in a few days but the doctors were baffled about what had led to it. “Initially, I was treated for both malaria and dengue, as my platelet count had dropped substantially,” says Shalini. Then, the doctors discussed her case with infectious diseases specialists in Cambodia and concluded that she had contracted Rickettsial with morts, a bacterial infection that is rare in India, but endemic to Southeast Asia.
The doctors told her they had no choice but to amputate her hand. When she was admitted to hospital, Shalini still had hope that somehow the doctors would be able to save her hand. She remembers waking up dazed after the operation. “My hand was completely bandaged,” she says. “I asked a nurse if the doctors had managed to fix my hand. She looked extremely uncomfortable and said, ‘They’ve cut it,’ and quickly walked away.”
hen, in August 2013, while she was having a casual conversation with her brother-in-law, her right hand broke off like a piece of dried wood. “I soon realised there was no point in waiting for the inevitable, and in September 2013, I got both my legs amputated.” The effects of the surgery were excruciating, both physically and emotionally. “The stumps of my legs were swollen, and I was on painkillers,” says Shalini. “Once the anaesthesia wore off, the pain was unbearable.” When the pain subsided, and it dawned on her that she was completely immobile, the emotional trauma set in. It was a massive elephant in the room, as her family refused to discuss the subject in front of her. Every time she looked at the stubs of her limbs, she felt devastated.
As time went by, however, she began to accept her new reality. “I had pondered over the amputations for a year and a half before they took place,” she says. “If they had happened overnight, and I didn’t have much of a say in the decision, it would have been more difficult to accept. By the time the amputations took place, I felt it was the right decision. There were various emotions in dealing with what had happened; I would sometimes feel hopeful and sometimes feel terrible. Somewhere along the line, however, I felt I would be okay, since I had been stuck in bed for so long, waiting for a miracle to happen. That was tiring. After the amputations, I felt like, ‘It’s done. Now I can move forward.’ Looking back, I have no idea how I got through that time, or how I managed to sit at home for so long, doing nothing.”
Shalini was lucky to have a strong support system that helped her get back on track. Her friends and family played a huge role “in keeping her sane,” she says. She was administered antidepressants while in hospital, but didn’t need them when she got home. Whenever she felt low, her mother would just let her cry; that made her feel better.
Shalini is an extremely positive person, which greatly helped her recover emotionally. “There is never a dull moment when Shalini is around,” says her friend Anshu Reddy, 39, a fashion designer in Bengaluru. “You feel alive when you are with her. Even in adversities, we’ve found happiness. With her, I have learnt many of life’s lessons and often seen its funny side. If I am a better person today, it’s because she has played a huge role in my life. Few people can have that kind of an impact on one’s life. That’s what makes her one of a kind.”
Shalini is now an accomplished para-athlete. “Shalini has made us all proud,” says Aiyappa. “She won the bronze medal in the T44 category [a disability sport classification] for the 100 metres sprint at the 2018 National Para Athletic Championship. Currently, she is Asia No 3 in that category. She has been training hard for the 2020 Summer Paralympics.”