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Spinal Injury Patient Finds New Meaning in Life

Sadia trying to raise her body from wheel chair while getting physiotherapy session at Spinal Injury Unit.

By Hira Tanveer

ISLAMABAD, July 18 - Sadia was on her first visit home to the Kashmiri town of Bagh since getting married three weeks earlier when the October 2005 earthquake struck. The walls of her sister’s house collapsed around Sadia as she tried to flee. She blacked out. When she woke up her sister was dead and she could no longer walk.

 “We tried to run but the walls collapsed. Something heavy fell on me and I fainted. The only thing I remember is being in pain,” Sadia recalls nine months later, propped up in a wheelchair in the UNICEF-built Spinal Injury Unit in Islamabad.  Sadia had left Bagh the day after her marriage to settle with her husband and in-laws near the eastern city of Lahore, some 400 kilometers from the areas struck by the earthquake.Bagh, a district of Pakistan-Administered Kashmir, was one of the worst-hit areas.

Sadia is one of 456 women who suffered spinal injuries in the 7.6-magnitude earthquake. Women and girls account for 61.5% of the total 741 spinal injury cases recorded by the World Health Organization.

Sadia was airlifted to Islamabad’s Shifa hospital and then on to Lahore for treatment. When she heard about a new place set up especially for women and children paralyzed by the earthquake, she asked to be transferred. She arrived at the Spinal Injury Unit in March.
UNICEF set up the Spinal Injury Unit in February 2006. Until then, most girls and women with spinal injuries were being cared for in public sector hospitals and community centers, like the reincarnated family-run Melody Cinema Rehabilitation Centre in Islamabad. 

When the Spinal Injury Unit first opened there were 65 patients. By mid-July 85 women and girls were being cared for at the unit.

“This unit was built by UNICEF, especially for women and children”, said UNICEF Health Officer Dr. Tamur Mueenuddin.

“The earthquake struck around 9 o’clock in the morning. In rural areas, that is the time when the men are in the fields and the women are in the home cooking. Like kids in schools, women inside their homes bore the brunt of injuries from falling stone-masonry", said Dr. Tamur.

The Spinal Injury Unit provides physiotherapy and rehabilitation programs. Vocational skills training – which includes stitching and embroidery - is a key plank of the rehabilitation efforts.

Daily physiotherapy sessions have enabled Sadia to sit up. She can now raise herself with only minimal struggle.

The skills’ training has given Sadia a sense of capability and empowerment. She says she welcomes every morning with great strength and a positive attitude.
“Here we are provided with the chance of learning skills. That helps wipe out the negative thoughts and feelings,” said Sadia. 

Dr Mirza Imran Raza, UNICEF Health Project Officer, said the activities are designed to lessen their dependency on their communities.

Sadia carrying out her daily exercise with the help of her trainer.

“The purpose of these activities is to increase their physical endurance and to decrease the level of anxiety they are facing,” he said.

“It will help them with employment prospects as well, minimizing their dependency on the community they belong to,” Dr. Raza said.  

Virginia Robson, an Australian disability development specialist volunteering at the Spinal Injury Unit, says a sense of independence is important for people with spinal injuries.

“It is really important for anybody who has ended up in a wheelchair to get education if possible. That way, these girls and women can earn and become independent”, said Virginia.
Sadia says she now has enough courage to envision and plan for her future.

“Though I can’t walk, I am capable of doing a lot of things. I am planning on becoming a teacher in the future, as I am educated and can help people in getting education,” she said as she sat in her wheelchair sewing a shirt.

Sadia hopes to return soon her husband and in-laws. Before she leaving she wants to teach the children who are staying in the unit with their injured mothers. It’s part of her new-found sense of vocation.




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