Even though she did not particularly like tennis, Shilpa Bhasin Mehra found herself watching a match at Dubai Aviation Club on February 27, 2003. “A friend had got two tickets because her son was a tennis fanatic. But for some reason, he couldn’t come. So, I went along. Throughout the match, I was clapping when everybody else did,” she recalls. All of a sudden, a mild headache began to make her feel uneasy. “I thought it was the noise or smoke perhaps that was causing these headaches,” says Shilpa, who was all of 33 then and worked as in-house legal adviser for Lamnalco. The headache worsened upon reaching home and no amount of Panadol-popping would bring relief the next day. Finally, an ambulance was called and Shilpa was admitted to NMC Hospital.
Doctors had begun suspecting this to be a case of meningitis. By March 1, Shilpa had already slipped into coma. By the time she opened her eyes 40 days later, she was in Delhi’s Apollo Hospital, with her lower body being paralysed. Having been unconscious for a considerable time, Shilpa thought it was weakness that prevented any movement. It was only gradually that she discovered the reasons. “When I opened my eyes, I was in a hospital room and saw this huge ventilator on the side with lots of tubes and drips inserted into my body. Everybody looked at me with some sort of relief because I’d finally regained consciousness.” That was the first indicator of how bad things could have turned. Her doctors, however, were more anxious to know if the meningitis had affected the brain function. For Shilpa, the concern was when she’d get her mobility back. “There was a very senior neurologist called Dr Wadia who laid the pathway for me. He said we have physiotherapy for arms and legs, but there is no physio for the mind. You’re very lucky that nothing has happened to your brain.” The doctors also assured her that she would walk one day but made a humble request — “Don’t ask when!”
Living during the pandemic has altered our understanding of life. Those of us who once aspired to see more of the world are now grudgingly accepting the new normal. Today, if Covid-19-related social distancing measures do not really daunt Shilpa, it is because she has experienced how enormous the world can seem from a six-foot bed to which she was confined for more than two years. The journey to standing on her own two feet (an activity that sometimes would take half an hour of concerted efforts by her doctors, physiotherapists and nurses) and eventually learning to walk all over again forms the crux of her book, All Battles Are Not Legal. Originally published on December 15, 2005, it has amassed a following owing to the sheer grit and determination that is at the heart of its protagonist’s story. “When doctors speak to you about this subject, you often tend to tell them that they do not understand what a patient really goes through. Writing, at that time, was cathartic, because I was experiencing a myriad emotions every day.” No day was stagnant. One day, if Shilpa would collapse while trying to get up, the other day, she would be able to make an extra effort. The anger and gratitude she felt during this time of a “personal tsunami” have been duly documented.
Of the many memories, the one Shilpa holds dear is the time when a former colleague reached out to her to seek feedback on an agreement that was prepared. “When my doctor entered, I asked him if I was fit enough (in legal language, we call it being of sound mind) to read an agreement and comment on it. He laughed and said, ‘Do you want a certificate for it?’” From that moment to now, helming her own consultancy firm, Shilpa says the journey has been arduous, but has taught the importance of gratitude. It is evident in her rejection of any grief she might’ve experienced in those years. “I would replace the word ‘grief’ with ‘challenges’. Life threw a challenge and I had to think in terms of getting out of it,” she says. “Human beings are survivors, there is resilience inside us. My resilience came forth when I was stuck in a six-foot bed.”
What has also helped is the UAE’s sensitivity towards people of determination. “The UAE is a fantastic place when it comes to people like me. There is just so much regard for your convenience. There are ramps, a special queues for the likes of us, among other facilities,” she says. “They almost hold you on to a pedestal and try to do everything to soften the blow.”
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