On September 12th, 2016, the oldest athlete of Indian contingent—45 years old Deepa Malik, scripted history by becoming the first Indian woman athlete to win a medal in the Paralympic games. A silver medal in the shot put in the 2016 Rio Summer Paralympics. At an age when most women are having mid-life crises, she was holding a medal in her hand.
Deepa was diagnosed with a spine tumor when she was just 5. It took around 3 years of treatment and aggressive physiotherapy to recover from that. In 1999, when she was 29, the spine tumor returned and doctors were left with no other option but to operate. They made it clear to her that the surgery would make her unable to walk. It took 3 surgeries and 183 stitches to eliminate the cancerous tumor off her body. But, it left her paralyzed from the waist down. After the surgery, she underwent physiotherapy for almost six years. Tough times never last, but, tough people do. These lines perfectly suit Deepa’s life struggles.
Raised in an army family and married to an army officer, she is used to braving difficulties that most of us can’t even think of facing. She is a proud mother of two daughters. Deepa has never been daunted by adversity. She wears a multitude of hats—a paralympic athlete, a motor rally driver, a swimmer, a sports bike racer, an entrepreneur, a motivational speaker, and a prominent disability activist.
Deepa firmly refuses to let any conversation veer to sympathy that her disability often attracts. At an age when most athletes are considering retirement, Deepa was just getting started. She began by joining the Himalayan Motorsports Association and conquered an 8-day 1,700 km bike ride to 18,000 feet in sub-zero temperatures.
She has won 18 international and more than 54 national medals in various sporting events. It would take more than a few minutes to go through the list of international sporting events she has participated in and 4 Limca world records are registered under her name. She has also received several other awards and recognition for her achievements. She was awarded the prestigious Arjuna award in 2012 at the age of 42, making her the oldest recipient of Arjuna awards. She was also given the prestigious Padmashri Award in 2017. She may be confined to a wheelchair, but her heart takes her to places where our legs don’t. In an Exclusive conversation with PHYSIOTIMES Director, Mukesh Nayak, Deepa Malik shares her story of grit and determination and above all the story of the triumph of ability over disability. She also emphasizes the role played by physiotherapy in her overall rehabilitation and performance as an athlete.
Mukesh Nayak: Please tell us the first time you were diagnosed with spinal tumour.
Basically the first time the tumour stuck was when I was 5 years old. The doctors couldn’t find it because of lack of investigation as there were no MRIs and CT SCANs and nothing was showing up in the X-ray or blood. I was complaining of pain in the back and generally feeling lazy, not wanting to move and then one fine day I couldn’t raise my legs to climb out of the school bus and that’s when my father felt a little alarmed. I was eventually admitted in Pune Command Hospital where they did lumbar puncture on me to find out if there is any spinal infection. I remember I had at least 7 lumbar punctures. Then I was also treated for tuberculosis meningitis. Eventually one neuro surgeon, a young major, had come back from USA after attending a seminar there and he suggested to do a myelogram and in that myelogram x-ray they finally found out that there is a blockage. On the basis of the myelogram they operated upon my upper spine and found out a cyst between the bones and the cord and ones it was removed, the compression on the cord was relieved. There was still flexibility there and slowly I recovered.
Nayak: Did you undergo any physiotherapy during this early phase?
Yes, I underwent a very very aggressive physiotherapy during those three years. I had to do rehabilitation and occupational therapy continuously for eight hours a day. So it was really very tedious for a small child. The equipments were very crude those days. I remember the leather chest brace given to me to keep my spine straight and the chin guard given to me that made blisters on my body. I was also given iron callipers. Now you have those soft fibre ones. What I used to have was a strap of leather with iron rods in it and they were strapped onto my hip. It was really cumbersome. From the age of 7 & ½ to 9 ½, I was doing nothing but physiotherapy.
Nayak: At this point did you understand what physiotherapy actually meant?
For me it was told, if I do this I will walk. Every time I will do this, I will get something to eat whether it was a chocolate or an idli or like an outing etc. It was very incentive oriented for a child, but today when I look back I can imagine how difficult it was. So at that time I didn’t realise, what rehab was. For me it was an activity which was told by parents. “You have to do it”. Of course, it wasn’t easy. I used to bleed on my blisters, I used to cry, felt awkward going like that to the school.
Nayak: Do you recollect some of the moments with your physio in those days while doing the treatment?
I was fortunate that I had a very good physiotherapist who could play on with the child psychology. For me a physio, especially for pediatrics, should be very patient, very innovative, has to become a child with a child. I remember when I was taught to balance in a crawl position, my physio would lie down with me on the mat and we would play roll, roll, roll and then he would crawl with me in the whole hall. We used to have a crawling race.
Nayak: Who was the physio you worked with in those days?
He was Mr. Fatolkar. He was in Pune Southern Command Hospital in 1977-78. Unfortunately he met with a sad demise.
Nayak: You recovered fully and started a normal life again. 100 percent recovery with just a scar of the surgery.
There were no symptoms, nothing. I played every game in the school, I was in the Rajasthan state level cricket team, played basketball, I was a good swimmer, a horse rider. I was an army child who did all the activities. Then I got married and I had my first child, Devika. She met with an accident. She got an injury on the right side of her head which got her left hand to get paralysed. As a 1 ½ year old, my daughter was hemiplegic. Then the same stint started with physiotherapy.
Nayak: So physiotherapy seems to have played a major role in your life.
Physiotherapy is so important in my life, and that is why I have agreed to do this interview. It was as if the almighty wanted me to learn how to deal with a small child during physiotherapy, I was given that introduction in the childhood and I knew exactly how to handle my child. It’s sad that the history repeated itself, but it made me a confident mother because I had undergone and same thing started for her, Physiotherapy.
This story is part of a series of articles published as an exclusive editorial exchange between PhysioTimes (based in India) and ABILITY Magazine