Paulami Patel, a 29-year-old Mumbaikar will fill your heart with sympathy when you initially see her. However, without her right hand, and with 45 plus surgeries, her radiant smile will put your sympathy to shame and reinforce your belief in the fact that “Disability is truly more about the mindset”. Overcoming her handicap, she’s a successful entrepreneur and an inspiration to everyone who succumbs to their shortcomings and gives up when things spiral downward.
In 2001, a 12-year old Paulami Patel, after her fifth standard semester exams had gone to her paternal uncle’s home in Hyderabad to spend summer vacations with her cousins. Her days were filled with laughter, and mindless playing until one afternoon when she decided to do a role-play with her cousin. They both pretended to fish on the balcony of the second floor of their home. It was just another normal day with kids engaged in their playful activities, and elders relaxing downstairs after lunch. Upstairs, Paulami, while role-playing, attached a metal utensil with her iron rod that would act as a hook, and flung it out of the balcony, pretending it to be the sea. Accidently the rod slipped out of her hand and tangled itself in the low-hanging electric wires. Assuming them to be wires meant to hang washed clothes, Paulami reached out for the rod. Shockingly, it was a live wire that struck her with an 11,000 volts electric current!
She was trembling and bleeding beyond belief. The current intensified further when in between the trembles, she came in contact with a nearby steel chair. Somehow she could yell once before she slipped out. The power went off, and her burned body collapsed on the floor. Hearing her cry, her relatives rushed to the balcony only to find an unconscious bleeding Paulami on the floor with her clothes torn apart. They rushed her to the Apollo hospital where they were informed that she had sustained about 80% burning. Her parents were summoned at once. Her mother refused to believe that something serious could have happened to her, but her father was more attuned to reality. They were shattered to find their young daughter wrapped head-to-toe in bandages, fighting for her life in the ICU.
“The doctors thought that it was a miracle I survived. Because in most cases, the patient dies on the spot. The current had travelled through my right hand and left through my left foot. While my right hand was severely damaged, my left foot had no skin, muscles or tissues left. I lay naked for a week in the burns ward. When the gangrene in my right hand had begun to spread, doctors were flown in from Mumbai for a second and third opinion. Within a week from the day of admission to the hospital, my right hand was amputated,” says Paulami, speaking to The Better India.
With one month in Apollo hospital where she received her primitive care, she was allowed to be shifted to the Breach Candy hospital, Mumbai via air ambulance. There she spent about eight months to get closer to normalcy as much as she could.
“There were too many corrective and re-corrective surgeries. The doctors wanted to save my left hand and foot. But since there was no skin or muscle left, they decided to cut open my abdomen and attached my left hand to it for two months. I was bedridden. The idea was to transfer flesh from my abdomen to my left hand to make it operable. In a 12-hour surgery, they cut open my calves and transplanted two 12-inch sensory nerves to my left hand,” she says.
The young girl was unable to fathom why she did not have a hand anymore. Besides, everyone who visited her showed deep remorse that would act as a constant reminder of her unforgettable tragedy. People exclaimed how her life is doomed, even more so because she was a girl. Her aspirations, in the noise of sympathy, were dying a slow terrible death. At such a time, it was her parents who shield her.
“My father came up with a simple rule. He said none of them could speak to me. The only way anyone was allowed to see me is if they told me a joke and I told one in return. And I cannot tell you how that helped me recover. Lying in that 4×4 room, 24×7, I would look forward to meeting people and sharing jokes,” says Paulami.
This not only gave Paulami the strength to cope up with her loss but also gave her a new perspective on life. She emerged out of remorse and started brimming with confidence. She knew that life would henceforward be difficult, but she won’t lose the battle in self-pity. Her undying optimism compensated for the disability she was imposed with.
Witnessing her spirit, her school and teachers turned out to be a massive support system. They knew that Paulami would become lonely if she got demoted to the lower standard because of her year-long absence in school. They instead supplied her with all the notes and resources to study at the hospital and even facilitated a writer who helped her write her final examinations. Thus, she was promoted to the next year with her batch itself. The same year, she was operated for a prosthetic arm.
“Using a prosthetic arm was very difficult. It was heavy, and my amputated arm was relatively tender. So, I first learned to lift it. Slowly, I decided to push myself to write. In the initial days, each letter I wrote was large enough to fit a page. But I was undeterred. So every day, I would diligently try and write five pages. It was also the time when I was reading a children’s novel, Matilda. So I decided to copy the entire story on book. By the time I reached the end of the book, I had learnt to write one statement in one line.”
It’s inspiring that Paulami, who lost her hand at a tender age, and whose self-esteem was challenged by fate, today is an MBA-graduate and a successful entrepreneur. She single-handedly manages her entire family business that deals in heavy machinery. Her personal life is blossoming with love. Paulami, whose future was tagged as doomed by society because she would apparently never find a suitable match has found selfless love in Sundeep Jotwani, her childhood best friend.
“I have known Sundeep for thirteen years now. We met just after school and hit it off as best friends. He is the sweetest guy I know. Even in the initial days, he never asked me anything about my accident upfront. Everything he knew was through my friends. The best part about our relationship is that we communicated without words. From the beginning, he always understood what I needed and did it before my having to ask.”
They married four years ago, and it seems their love is still blossoming like a fresh daisy. They truly define compatibility, understanding, and care.
“Taking help from him was never embarrassing or awkward for me either. We fell into a comfortable routine. When we entered a restaurant, and I couldn’t make smaller pieces of the food on my plate, he would listen to my order, call it to his plate, make pieces and then pass it to me. He has been my rock-solid support through and through.”
We all have different ideas about ourselves in our heads, which often are the chains we have voluntarily tied ourselves to. Paulami Patel is a shining example of how we are what we think. Had she chosen to think about herself as a handicap, she would have been one for her entire life, indulging in self-pity and cursing her fate. Instead, her choice to think about herself as a normal girl for whom the sky is limit kept the flame of hope alive in her heart. She enjoys life like any normal person would. She’s adventurous who loves Sky-diving, bungee jumping, and motor-driving. She is passionate about writing and business, both. Her mother, in order to encourage her, has connected her with several people who use prosthetics but are still actively soaking in life. Today, she, in turn, has also turned into an inspiration for many.
“I have seen both sides of life–as an able-bodied person and a person overcoming disability. All I want to say is that this is all a part of life. Don’t shut yourself down, don’t hold back. There is so much more to life and a whole world left to conquer. So what if I don’t have a hand, I will still live my best life.”