How I lost my arm but kept my spirit
‘Neither good nor bad times last forever’
It’s said that we remember both the best and worst moments of our lives. More importantly, we remember those moments that change us forever, whether for the good or bad. I remember everything about the event that irrefutably changed my life in 2012: the accident in which I lost my right arm.
I was born and brought up in a small suburban town in central India: most people don’t know Satna exists. And when I say small, I mean it. Everybody knows everyone and there are no secrets. Most families living in Satna own industrial businesses and have huge investments in Indian real estate. It’s affluent and comfortable – not dissimilar to the Hamptons, but less beautiful and definitely no beaches.
Growing up, my father was a businessman and my mother was a homemaker. I went to primary school in my hometown, but at the age of 11, my parents asked me whether I wanted to go to boarding school. I agreed, and after clearing the entrance examination and qualifying the interview, I moved 800 kilometers away from home, all the way to the west of the country. I began middle school in the number one all girls’ boarding school in the country – its male equivalent being dubbed the “Eton of the East”.
As mentally prepared as I was to leave home, it took me a good two and a half years to settle in. I struggled to make friends initially, but at the end of eighth grade I found my best friend, Aditi. Around this time, I really found my niche — namely within Hindi debate and Hindi poetry writing, despite my initial reservations. The summer before ninth grade (June 2011), I made my first trip abroad to the United States of America on a space education program with NASA. In September, my first ever Hindi poem was published in my school’s monthly newsletter. I won best speaker at my first debate competition, I went to South Korea for an MUN conference, I took and passed my final exams with flying colors and suddenly I was done with ninth grade.
All in all, the year was idyllic – a year I would call perfect without thinking twice. I could never have predicted what was to follow.
At the end of every academic year, my school organized educational trips for every class and we went to different places in India. My class was assigned to go to a state in west India, and so we left for Gujarat on March 18th, 2012. Gujarat is a dry state – drinking alcohol is illegal, primarily because Mahatma Gandhi was born here. The only city in this state that serves alcohol without a permit is a union territory at the coast of this state called Daman & Diu. This is where I found myself on the day of the accident.
March 23rd, 2012 is a date I can and will never forget. It began beautifully with my friends and I enjoying the beach and reflecting on our year of success. As the evening started to draw on, we climbed aboard the bus and started heading back to our hotel. I remember calling my mother for the first time since I’d been away. I told her I loved her and that the trip had been everything I dreamed of. For me, it was a perfect vacation to end a perfect year.
After hanging up the phone, I switched seats with a friend of mine so that I could sit next to my best friend, Aditi. I swapped off the aisle and onto a window seat, and my friends and I got talking and singing and doing our own thing.
March 23rd 2012, 6:30 p.m. A time stamp permanently added to this unforgettable date.
We’d been on the road for about five minutes when our bus started rocking and shaking, then suddenly there was a huge lurch to the right. At the time I thought we’d hit a speed bump, but I now know the driver had taken the bus over a street divider.
Our driver was drunk. He’d found alcohol in the only part of the dry region that would serve him. He was drunk – and our teachers hadn’t even realized.
All of the sudden, I remember the bus falling to the right and my face smashing the glass window. People were screaming, and all of my friends had started to run out.
Aditi was screaming, “Anushka – get up, we have to get out!” to which I responded, “Yeah, I’m coming out.”
I tried to get up, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t move. The only words that came out of my mouth were, “What the fuck!” and my head was starting to feel a little dizzy… I thought it was because of the injury I’d suffered to my face after I’d hit the glass in the crash. I was frantically trying to maneuver, but I couldn’t physically pull myself up. That’s when another good friend, Diya, came back into the bus and I told her that I couldn’t get out. She tried to calm me down, saying, “Okay, don’t worry, I’m going to help you get up.”
She grabbed my left arm, hauled me upright, and that’s when I saw it. And she saw it too. My right arm was lying on the ground completely severed, and there was blood and muscle flesh covering the ground where I’d just been lying.
I screamed and screamed and so did Diya. She was so horrified that she released my left arm and I dropped like a stone – my face smashed the glass again and I was back on the ground. I was fading at this point. I could see other civilians gathering around the bus and shrieked for help: once in English, once in Hindi, and then again. But nobody helped. They gathered around me, watching and moving and forming a circle, but no one actually did anything. I was absolutely frightened. I was scared that I wasn’t going to make it. And for some reason I was extremely worried about how my parents would react to this. I didn’t want it to be true, but it was. I had no control over my body or the situation I’d found myself in.
At the time I knew I was supposed to be in pain, but I wasn’t. I couldn’t feel anything. It was like being in a partial state of shock. However, there were two things I was absolutely sure of: I knew couldn’t move, and I knew I’d lost my right arm.
The next thing I remember I was at a hospital. Diu is a small place and the hospital’s emergency facilities were not good. It had taken them forty minutes to get me out of the bus and into the hospital, and when I arrived I had already lost 60% of my blood. The two doctors – yes, there were only two – were brought out and I remember telling one of them, “Please, just save my arm.” After that, I was taken into surgery.
Meanwhile, my teachers had informed my parents and my home was in state of….I don’t even know how to describe it. My Dad’s reaction was pure fury – he was ready to sue everyone and anyone who’d had any contact with me in the days before my accident. My mom was a mess, inconsolably crying and out of her mind with worry. She was in constant contact with the doctors who she kept telling to save my arm. At this stage, one of the doctors silenced her with the stark reality of how dire my situation was. He said:
“She’s had no BP or pulse for 15 minutes. Forget about her arm, we’re trying to save her life”.
I now know that the only reason I survived was sheer dumb luck. Coincidently, there was a van with army soldiers that was behind our bus when the incident took place. One of the soldiers was my blood type, and he donated me enough blood to ensure my survival until I arrived at the hospital. He’s one of a number of people I owe my survival to – and I never got to see him or thank him for what he did. I wish I could. One day, I will.
One of the soldiers found my arm on the scene and kept it on ice until we got to the hospital – but his efforts were futile. The bone was completely crushed, and despite it being a viable limb, there was nothing to attach it back to on my body.
When I woke up after approximately a day and a half, what was left of my right arm was completely bandaged. Before this point, I wasn’t sure how much of my arm I had lost, but then I heard the doctor saying that it was an, “above elbow amputation.” Approximately two inches above the elbow.
I didn’t even react at this point – an arm is an arm. What did I care about the finer nuances of it? I’d lost my hand, a part of my body, and it was all too much to process.
The trauma wasn’t only to my arm. I had also suffered severe injuries to my face – I had completely lost the area under my right eye where you would typically have bags if you were tired. It was then that I was taken to another city called Rajkot. One of my favorite teachers, Mrs. Anshu, refused to leave my side until we made it to the hospital. She’s another person I owe my survival to, and I’m forever grateful for the part she played in my subsequent recovery.
I had horrible phantom pain and I was hungry, and thirsty. Phantom pain is an ongoing painful sensation that seems to be coming from the part of the limb that is no longer there. The limb is gone, but the pain is real. The onset of this pain typically occurs immediately after surgery. And that is exactly what I was going through. I could feel the fingers of my right arm moving, but they weren’t really there. And when I would feel them move, it would hurt. It really, really hurt.
My dad, mom, and two of my uncles arrived in Rajkot the next morning and when I saw my mother, I had nothing to say. She was crying and I wanted to too, but somehow, I couldn’t. I remember thinking how weird the whole situation was – it was completely surreal and I’m not convinced I was entirely lucid at this point.
I am lucky I came from a financially stable family who were able to offer me the best possible healthcare. After moving to a hospital in Mumbai, I was in the hospital for 25 days and I had a surgery every other day because everything was so damaged. The main thing I remember from this time is how shit the hospital food was. Seriously – it absolutely sucked. Trust me, even the best hospitals have the most horrible food. There’s no other way to describe it.
It was around this time my dad began to say that he was going to sue the school – and I can see where he was coming from. The school screwed up. They didn’t realize our bus driver was drunk. I lost a limb, and very nearly my life as a result of their oversight.
I was never going to let him do it though. Regardless of what appeared to be an impossible situation, I had no intention of returning home, and if he sued the school I’d have nowhere to go back to. The more I thought about it, I realized the current students were at the best school in the country and I wouldn’t have them suffer. Further to that, the teachers had families – children, homes and lives to support that they wouldn’t be able to continue if the school was sued.
I told my dad that if getting the money or extra compensation would bring my arm back, then he could go ahead and file a lawsuit – but it wasn’t going to change anything. They sent me away from home to become a better person, and at the age of twelve I left my Satna life behind – my boarding school friends were my family now. And that’s where I belonged.
In the end, we filed a case against the drunk driver and we won, but he was subsequently released from prison… someone paid his bail and he’s still at large. Aye aye to the Indian Judicial System. Four of my dad’s best lawyers couldn’t do shit about it, and I’m terrified that other people’s lives are at stake because of the lack of justice.
From there began my recovery. I was born left handed, which should’ve worked in my favor having lost my right arm, but it didn’t quite work out that way.
In India, there’s a stigma around being left handed – people get weirded out and think there’s something wrong with you. Based on this, when I started writing, my mother ensured my right hand was dominant and I essentially forgot I’d ever had the ability to write on the other side.
Now, I’d lost my right arm, and so I had to gradually begin the process of shifting preference back to my left hand side. It was so hard, unbelievably frustrating, but I was determined to return to school. After a week in the hospital, I started writing – I practiced writing one page every day. The letters were huge at first, but after a week and a half or so, they reduced in size and began to fit in the lines which felt like an enormous success.
Learning to write again wasn’t the only difficulty I was going to face. Even the action of getting dressed was nearly impossible, and I began to hate buttons with a passion. When I’d been home for a few days, I took my boarding school uniform out of the wardrobe and started picturing myself back there with my friends. I grabbed the crisp, white, button-up shirt and started pulling it over my stump and onto my body. Once I put it on, I started trying to do the buttons up with my left hand. I stood there for twenty minutes trying to do them up before eventually becoming so frustrated that I burst into tears and flung the shirt on the floor. I wasn’t going to be beaten by buttons though – I picked it back up and practiced and practiced until I could do the buttons without thinking.
It was around this time that I did one of the boldest thing a girl can do – I cut off 8 inches of my hair and got a bob. I did this for two reasons: I wanted to feel different, and I’d never tried a bob before. Mostly though, with only one arm I couldn’t tie my hair up anymore. It was almost impossible with my left hand, and I didn’t want to deal with the stress of trying to keep my hair off of my face. Needless to say, the bob looked awful and I regretted it within about five minutes.
I remember one occasion when I was in the kitchen and had just filled up a glass of water. I needed to pick up a book, so I passed the glass of water from my left hand to my right… the right hand that no longer existed. The glass went crashing to the floor, and after three minutes of uncontrollable laughing, I started to cry. Everything was difficult, nothing was easy.
I spent that summer feeling like a toddler – learning how to do everything for the first time with a limb that didn’t work as well as the old one.
My principal had offered me a full scholarship and in August 2012, I returned to school. I was so grateful for my friends in the following months – they made the transition easy and more comfortable. They taught me how to tie my shoe laces again, and how to put on eyeliner-using only one hand, and didn’t let me get away with doing anything less than all of the things I used to do. They learned how to do these things one handed themselves, and would excitedly teach me without pity or judgement. My “squad” and I were inseparable. For all the people I owe my life from the day of the accident, I owe these girls my sanity.
But life is never that simple, is it? Unbeknown to me, I was about to be dealt another life-altering blow.
Since my accident, Mrs. Anshu – the teacher who had helped me get to the hospital in Rajkot – had become one of my biggest advocates. She had encouraged me to get back into debating, had helped me settle back into boarding school life and was seminal to my recovery. I’d begun to lean on her as a friend as well as a teacher, and though I was spending increasingly less time with her as I embraced my new life.
At this time, India was suffering under the swine flu virus, and I later found out that Mrs. Anshu had been diagnosed with stage three swine flu. I was terrified. On speaking to my principal, I knew she was in isolation and fighting for her life, but I couldn’t believe that I was going to be so unlucky as to lose my friend and mentor after the year I’d had.
On the first Monday of January 2013, my principal called for an urgent assembly for the entire school and I had an immediate sense of foreboding. As my friends and I started walking towards the auditorium, I looked up at the school flag and realized it was at half-mast – the sign of respect indicating that there had been a death in the school. I immediately burst into tears. That morning, my teacher confirmed my worst fear – Mrs. Anshu had lost her life to the virus. The person I owed my life to was no longer with me, and in eight months, I had suffered yet another loss. I still miss her to this day and I’m forever grateful to her for the part she played in my survival.
But, neither good nor bad times last forever. After this, I fully reclaimed my life, and 2014 was my year. In June, I got a brilliant grade in my SATs. July, I lost all the weight I’d gained while struggling to cope with the loss of my arm. In September and October, I won eight more debates and was named best speakers in each of them, and 11 of my poems were published. Soon after, I became debate society president and was awarded honors for consistent excellence in debate. Finally, I won the most prestigious award offered at my school called the Spirit of Mayo.
It was around then that I knew I no longer wanted to be in India – it was time to explore the possibility of going away. When I brought it up with my father, he didn’t understand why I wanted to go all the way to the United States for college. But I knew I had to make him understand.
My school life was wonderful. I had friends, my family loved me and my health was in good nick. For all intents and purposes, I was normal, but I wasn’t completely happy.
Random people I didn’t even know used to stop me in the middle of the mall and ask me as to what happened to me. When I told them, what followed was the sad, sympathy lecture. That’s not what I needed then. It sounds like a small thing, but after my accident nobody was willing to teach me how to drive. More and more, my disability was becoming a limitation and I wasn’t ready to be told ‘no’.
I told my father that I was tired of answering everyone’s questions. I was no longer just Anushka – I was Anushka who had been in an accident, Anushka who, according to small town Indian society, was no longer eligible for an arranged marriage, and mostly Anushka who had lost her arm. My entire life was associated with the accident, and no matter how normal and how much like myself I felt, I couldn’t just be “me” anymore. That’s when I started really thinking of Emory, From the moment I started my college research, I began to think of it as ‘my perfect fit’.
On December 15th, 2014 at 9:00 a.m. IST (another date and time stamp I can and will never forget) I was accepted under Early Decision One to Emory College of Emory University. I know it sounds cliche, but it truly was a dream come true. Suddenly, the reality of my new life started sinking in – I was going to America for college.
In August 2015, I moved to Atlanta and into Emory and it’s been the best seven months of my entire life. From my very first day, both my parents and I fell in love with the campus and the lifestyle. I can do the things at Emory I couldn’t have dreamed of doing in India. Rock climbing, driving, this semester was the first time I went ice skating – and it was so much fun!
Over here, the “no, you can’t”, has been substituted with “yes, of course you can do it”. My disability no longer defines me. I don’t hide my scars – I have nothing to hide and I bother with make up only when I go to parties. I study, I’m part of student clubs, I have an active social life, I even auditioned for a hip hop dance team for fun. I also actively contribute to the Amputee Coalition of America. I do everything that a normal student does, and there are no barriers to what I can and will achieve.
When I returned home to India for past winter break, my Dad asked me, “how does it feel to be 8,431 miles away?” I knew the distance was there both literally and figuratively compared to the person I was when I left. The truth is, it feels amazing and I wouldn’t want to trade my Emory experience for anything else.
There are times that I miss doing things like tying my hair own my own, or remember how much easier it is to tie shoe laces with two hands instead of one. A lot of people ask me how I recovered from the accident, and I really think it was the power of positive thinking – nobody puts thoughts in your head but you.
I swapped the “Why me?” with “Unfortunately, me” and I moved on. I could have curled up into a ball and cried for the rest of my life, or I could do something and be someone.
I hate that the driver who was responsible for my accident is free – it frightens me, but I know that I’m doing alright. Every year on the anniversary of my accident, I hit a low and my heart aches, but I can’t tell you how much more manageable the anniversary feels now that I’ve moved to Emory.
At the end of my high school senior year, I made a promise to myself. I will go back the place where the accident happened. But I won’t go back until I have become something in life. When I return, I’ll stand where the bus crashed: tall, proud and whole. I’ll laugh at the obstacle that tried to screw me over. I’m determined to leave the obstacle behind, move on, and in that moment I know I’ll be fierce.
In the race against life, I won.