This is a story of the triumph of will. A story of courage, determination and dedication. A story of hope and resilience in the face of challenges. In 2011, twenty four year old national level volleyball player Arunima Sinha was thrown off a moving train by thieves for refusing to hand over the gold chain she was wearing. She lost her left leg when a train went over it. As she lay in the hospital bed, with one leg amputated, Arunima Sinha took a vow that many would think impossible. Her goal, from that day onwards, was not just to become adept at walking with a prosthetic leg but scale the highest point in the world – Mount Everest. In 2013 she did just that, becoming the first Indian female amputee to achieve this feat. It was a feat – which many would consider impossible – that not only brought back her self confidence but made her an inspiration for everyone back home. In 2015, she was awarded the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award in India.
ABILITY’s friends at India based PHYSIOTIMES spoke to Arunima Sinha about that unfortunate train journey, the agony that followed, the role played by physiotherapy in her rehab, why she decided to climb Everest and how it is in the worst tragedies that the human spirit learns to soar. Here’s Arunima’s story, in her own words…
Please tell us in brief about your early life and family background.
I come from Ambedkar Nagar, a small district in Uttar Pradesh 200 kilometres away from Lucknow. My father was an engineer in the army and my mother, Gyan Bala, a health supervisor in a government primary health centre. My father passed away when I was three. I have an elder sister Laxmi Sinha and a younger brother Rahul Sinha. Upon my father’s death, my brother in law Mr. Omprakash, whom we fondly call Bhai Sahib, became the family’s de facto patriarch.
Share about your days of struggle to get a job.
Everyone in my family enjoys sports and I was naturally athletic as a child. I have been cycling since I can remember, had previously represented by school in football and later my college at national level volleyball. But sports took a backseat when my job hunt started. I studied law after my post-graduation and was confident about getting started on a robust career. But everyone feels the sting of unemployment at some point in their lives. This time I was at its receiving end.
Upon my brother-in-law’s suggestion, I decided to get a job in the paramilitary forces so that I can carry on with my passion for sports along with a regular source of income as well. Despite many heartfelt attempts, I didn’t get through. The job search was not turning out as I had expected and I was getting desperate. In 2011, I applied for a head constable’s post in the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF). When I got the call letter I saw they had got my birth date wrong. Determined not to lose out on a good opportunity due to this technical error, I decided to leave for Delhi immediately to get it rectified. I was confident that once this was done, I would get the job. My whole life has been a struggle. I was in struggle physically and mentally too, but my family was always with me.
Narrate in brief the fateful accident that changed your life forever.
They say our lives are scripted in advance. We just play our part and fate intervenes in mysterious ways to ensure that no one deviates from the script. It was a wrong date of birth on my CISF interview call later that led me to my taking the train journey that changed the course of my life forever.
I still get frightened when I think of that incident. On the night of 11th April, 2011, while on my way to Delhi from Lucknow by Padmavat Express, I was attacked by a group of local robbers. They tried to snatch my gold chain which was gifted by my mother. Being a single female traveler, they took me for an easy prey. When I refused to hand over the chain, they started coming at me one at a time. I tried to resist them. I kicked, punched and fought as best as I could. Thanks to my athletic physique and fitness, I gave them a tough time. For a brief moment, it even seemed I had the upper hand. But, being a lonely girl, I could not resist them for longer and eventually, I was overpowered by them. The compartment was full of people, but no one came to the rescue of a girl being robbed and attacked. Those inhuman guys threw me out of the running train. I flew into an oncoming train and the force threw me onto the opposite tracks. What happened thereafter took a matter of seconds. Before I could move my left leg off the track, another train coming on the parallel track ran over my legs.
What do you recall the most from the night you laid there on the railway tracks after the accident?
The whole experience was very scary. I discovered later that 49 trains had passed me by as I lay wrecked and bleeding on the tracks. Rodents would come and feast on my oozing wounds, scampering off when trains came. I kept screaming in pain before finally passing out. Looking back, I really wonder how I managed to hold on for so long. I never thought I would survive that night. But when morning dawned, renewed hope surged through me.
How did you get to the hospital and your experiences of the treatment you received first hand?
Open tracks transform into public toilets for poor villagers who have nowhere else to defecate. The next morning when the lads came to take a dump, the sight of my mangled body greeted them. Pintu Kaanshyap was the man who took me to the Bareilly District Hospital. But the move involved so many bureaucratic hurdles from disinterested government employees that I was left on the platform for hours before being taken to the hospital.
My left leg had to be amputated from below the knee immediately to prevent gangrene from setting in. I was losing blood alarmingly. Here I was informed that the hospital was out of anaesthesia. With no choice, I instructed them to go ahead with the amputation. The limb was sawed off while I was fully conscious. The hospital staff was severely encumbered by the lack of supplies, but did everything in their power to make my suffering lessen. The pharmacist B.C. Yadav donated his own blood because there was none to spare. To give you an idea of the kind of hospital and place it was, I need to mention this. After the amputation, as I lay in the OT, a street dog ventured into the room and started feasting on the leg that had just been removed from my body. My right leg also didn’t remain completely immune from the accident. A rod was inserted in the right leg – from knee to ankle.
The accident created an uproar and got a lot of media coverage. What do you have to say about that?
While I was fighting for my life, without my knowledge, outside I had become a media sensation. Newspapers and TV channels picked up my story and reported on the gory details. It is outrageous that a young girl traveling alone can be thrown off the train just like that. Both the UP and the national government got involved. Ajay Maken, the then sports minister, arranged for me to be shifted to AIIMS where I was assured to receive world class care. For my distraught family, this provided some temporary relief. What I didn’t know then was the worst was yet to come.
You had to face some allegations despite what you went through.
Initially my story was being pawned by the state and national governments because of the sympathy votes it could help garner. Then it took a murky turn. When my story captured national attention, questions began to be asked that who was responsible for my accident and who all should be held accountable. It’s not that someone was out to get me, but everyone wanted to save themselves. In the mad scramble to avoid the blame that followed, the easiest scapegoat was me. First stories started circulating that I was traveling without a ticket and had jumped to avoid being caught by the ticket collector. A CCTV footage showed me standing in a queue to purchase the ticket. With this theory invalidated, even louder claims that I wanted to commit suicide started doing the rounds. I could have been shouting my innocence from the rooftops, but it would not have made a difference.
You were shifted to AIIMS, Delhi eventually. How did your treatment go there?
On 18 April 2011, I was brought to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences for further treatment, spending four months at the Institute. I was provided a prosthetic leg free of cost by a private Delhi-based Indian company. I was in common wealth ward and from there my prosthetic leg journey started.
What is the role played by physiotherapy in your rehabilitation?
Physiotherapy played really a huge role in my rehabilitation. It actually gave complete movement to me and helped me regain functional freedom. Basically physiotherapy has so much of power and it benefitted me a lot.
When was the decision to climb Mount Everest actually happen?
I was an amputee now, and people were looking at me with pity in their eyes. Honestly, I was tired of explaining people that I didn’t attempt suicide. I tried to convince people but failed mostly. Whenever I saw my missing leg, I used to think, I will never let it be my weakness. Losing a part of your body at an early age is a big thing. I was terrified with my disability and the people who were criticizing me. Then I decided, to answer them with action not words. ...
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This story is part of a series of articles published as an exclusive editorial exchange between India’s PHYSIOTIMES and ABILITY Magazine