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     Volume 7 Issue 40 | October 10, 2008 |

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Born to survive

Kavita Charanji

Survivors. Courtesy: Women Speak Out

You can recognise them from a mile men and women of indomitable courage and strength who have returned from the jaws of death. It could be a severe illness, handicap or acute trauma. Many could go completely under but not these survivors.

When talking about these unique and driven people, I like to draw parallels with the Greek myth of the phoenix and how it rises from the ashes. According to the Wikepedia, the phoenix is a mythical sacred firebird with a rich plumage. Gifted with a 1,000-year life cycle, near the end of its life the phoenix builds a nest of cinnamon twigs that it then ignites. While both the nest and the bird are reduced to ashes, a new young phoenix emerges with an equal life span as its old self. The bird was also said to regenerate when hurt or wounded by a foe, thus being almost immortal and invincible. Interestingly, one story goes that it can heal a person with a tear from its eyes.

In real life, one comes across many people who have defied death and illness and lived to see the light at the end of a lonely tunnel. Take, for instance, Poonam Bagai, a survivor of colon cancer, who now runs an NGO, CanKids for child survivors of cancer. Today after intensive treatment, she lives a busy life running her organisation. She recalls how she sank into depression when she was diagnosed with cancer in the year 2000 while in Warsaw. What made it worse is that she had two small boys to tend between seven and three years of age. “It was grey, it was black..I just slept 18 hours a day.” Fortunately her husband and family were constantly by her side throughout.

Having emerged from the shadow of death, she has undergone a major transformation. As she says, “Survival is in the hands of God. One has to go through a period of introspection and come face to face with death. It changed me in many ways and made me revise and review my priorities. I now believe that everything happens for a reason. For me it was to establish CanKids.

Today my priorities are my kids, parents, friends and work.”

In good company: Members of CanKids... KidsCan organise fun and learning activities for parents and children while they wait to meet the doctor at cancer treatment centres. Courtesy: Businessline

Then there is the London-based Sam Lynas who lost his left hand in a car accident on a California highway in 2004. What made it worse was that his father was killed in the car crash. Today he is a reputed Japanese interpreter. Sam has been through his share of torment and agony. As he says, “I cannot do pull ups anymore and when you can't do something you just accept it as it is. It is things like washing up, drying up and getting change out of pockets to pay for things that are really annoying because you can do them, only very badly. So I shout and swear a lot when I cook, which is why I try to do it when no one else is around.”

And that is not all. Sam has reconciled himself to turbulence professionally. His career in chemistry for which he had studied very hard for two years, was in the end derailed by the whole accident. It took him a long time to try and work out what he should devote himself to. Obviously he cannot be the same any longer. Friends and family describe him as a “solitary person.” Now Sam plans to embark on a new life by buying a house in Cambridge.

Somehow, even in the midst of agony and despair there is what the more spiritual call divine providence. As for instance at a time when many young men are succumbing to heart attacks, one man has had fortune on his side. After a serious heart attack in his late 30s, he has survived surgery and the trauma of nearly having lost his life. How does he do it? A strong will that has seen him through the vagaries of fate. Plus of course the unstinting support of his family and friends.

Or let's take a sensitive young woman coming face to face with hard reality. Quite unprepared for the ways of the world, she has survived sexual harassment with all its trauma and loss of dignity. All this thanks to the many teachers that she has encountered along life's travels. Then there have been support groups that pulled her out of the morass of self-pity and the feeling of victimisation.

Taking it a step further is Jane Rowan, a survivor of child abuse, who went on air this year, with a web-radio show on the subject. She is quoted as saying, “We need to learn about that epidemic and stop the abuse. We also need to respect those who have survived the nightmare and support their healing.” Today she is a prolific author and poet in New England. To share her healing process with others she has become a votary of the need to connect with the inner child that resides in each of usalbeit suppressed. As she says, “Getting in touch with our inner child is not always easy. At first it might seem that they just want to cry and cry. The parts of us that were split off at a young age had to go away for good reasons -- abuse, fear, neglect and misunderstandings. These young parts were not allowed to express their overwhelming feelings, so they took the feelings away with them.”

Other survivors find the answers in reaching out and confiding in trusted friends or family. Some may want to see a psychologist or psychiatrist when the pain gets too much to bear alone. Above all it is a strong will, self confidence and a faith in the universe that will pull many a survivor out of his or her inner torment. And, as Helen Keller said, “When one door of happiness closes, another opens.”


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