With hardship comes ease
Issue 94 July 2012
Hammad Aslam anticipated challenges at medical school. What he didn’t anticipate was a tree falling on his car, and the resulting paralysis and brain injury.
Three years ago, I was involved in an automobile accident that left me completely paralysed from the chest down. After a complete spinal cord injury, a traumatic brain injury, an array of broken bones, severe nerve damage, a coma, a bout with pneumonia, and several months in the hospital, I am thankfully still here and able to reflect.
It was May 23rd, 2009. I was coming home from an apartment hunt with my family in Augusta, Georgia. I was supposed to begin medical school that fall. Our vehicle hydroplaned and hit a tree, and the tree collapsed on top of my corner of the car. Since then, I’ve been in a wheelchair. The other members of my family, thankfully, are fine.
Bouncing back from the accident has given me what I refer to as this second life. I think to myself, “What did I do with my first life?” I had been accepted to medical school, I had great friends, I was doing the occasional humanitarian service, I was a part of several clubs, and I was tutoring my friends in science classes. I had my dream future laid out in front of me. Looking back, I believe that I should have done more.
When I had the ability to walk freely and go wherever I wanted to go, what did I do with it? Nothing extraordinary. I was not thankful for the ability to move freely and I took it for granted. I was selfish and self-centered in this regard. If I could go back in time with the knowledge and experiences I have now, I would try to use my efforts in things that would actually benefit others.
Being in a wheelchair, my friends and family tell me, may make me a more empathetic doctor. I’ve been through a great deal, and I’ve experienced a lot of pain—both physical and emotional. I feel that I can better relate to patients because of that.
During the first year post-injury, I was coping more with my physical situation: being paralysed, using a wheelchair, and not being able to do the things I have done my entire life. Over the second year, I dealt with my mental situation. I’ve never worked so hard in my life and I can confidently say I worked harder than anyone that I know.
There were times when I thought I was in over my head. There were times when I wanted to quit. I became so frustrated because everything was different. Unlike before, I had to spend a long time studying things. Even so, my grades weren’t reflecting my effort at all.
Or perhaps they were reflecting my effort, considering my injuries. I really wasn’t the same person. I didn’t have the same mind. The scar on my neck reminds me of my traumatic brain injury; it reminds me of the time I spent on the brain injury floor; it reminds me of all the times I was told to reconsider professions; it reminds me of why I had to work so hard to keep my dream alive of becoming a physician.
With the help of God, I will fulfill my dream. After three years, I feel that I’ve become more comfortable with everything in regards to the disabilities I have. From my first year in medical school, to now—as I prepare to enter my third year—there’s a significant difference in me. But there are still some things that make me ask, “Is this real?”
When I see photos or videos of myself, I see myself the way others see me. Do people even remember what I looked like standing, walking, or running? I know I have a hard time remembering. The people I talk to now only know this current state. It makes me wonder, “Who have I become?” I have to remind myself that this is who I am. This is who I have become. Everything in the past has passed, never to return again.
I have come to truly value time. Every moment we spend not pleased with our current state of affairs is a moment wasted. We have been given only a short amount of time to spend in this world and if we do not value each moment that we have been blessed with, it is a show of simple ingratitude.
Now I find peace in everything. When troubles come into my life I simply accept them, deal with them and learn from them. If something hits you, you take the hit and keep going. Why waste any moment feeling negative when we can just as easily smile?
Three years of paralysis and two years of medical school have passed. It sometimes feels like I have lived two lives: one life has passed away, and another one has started. Now as each valuable moment passes by, I find myself experiencing it as I bear these disabilities.
If the boy I was before met the man I am now, I don’t think he would care too much about my obstacles, failures, or rough patches. He would assure me that each time I fall, I’ll be able to pick myself back up. That is why I meet the people I meet; that is why I face the successes and failures that I do; that is why I experience pain and see others in pain. It is all to prepare me for bigger tests—tests that I should pass because I have been preparing for them my whole life.
Hammad Aslam is a medical student at the Georgia Health Sciences University-University of Georgia Medical Partnership in Athens, Georgia.
Words by Chelsea Toledo
The University of Georgia filmed two short clips with Hammad about his car accident, and how he's changed since entering medical school. You can see the film from his first year here, and the most recent one here. Hammad also writes a blog, called Thoughts on Wheels.