Finding purpose and joy after a spinal cord injury

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August 26, 2022 – Preethi Srinivasan was an 18-year-old with a bright future in sports and science. A medalist at state level in swimming, she was also an experienced cricketer and dreamed of representing her native India in cricket.

Her academic record was equally outstanding and she was enrolled in a 5-year MBA course in Chennai, India. “My life was perfect and the possibilities seemed endless,” she says in an interview.

Srinivasan was on a seaside college trip with friends. She was standing in waist-deep water when the sand gave way under her feet and she tripped. An experienced swimmer, she jumped into the water when she realized she was falling.

“As soon as my face was under the water, I felt a shock-like sensation travel through my body and immediately I couldn’t move,” says Srinivasan. “I tried to get up, but nothing happened.” From that moment on, she was paralyzed below the neck.

“My life as I knew it was over, but a whole new life was beginning,” she says. “I just didn’t know what that would look like.”

To accept the serenity

There are an estimated 17,730 new spinal cord injuries annually in the United States and 250,000 to 500,000 worldwide. The US Senate has designated September as National Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month.

People living with spinal cord injury not only face practical, medical and financial challenges, but also feel that their lives have been permanently turned upside down, said Rex Marco, MD, chief medical ambassador for the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. This can lead to despair and loss of purpose.

Marco himself had a spinal cord injury when he was over 50, which paralyzed him. He was a nationally recognized spine surgeon and musculoskeletal oncologist, as well as an active snowboarder, mountain biker, and yoga practitioner.

All that changed when his mountain bike’s tire stalled in a dip along a trail and catapulted him headfirst over the handlebars. He heard a crack but felt no pain. He knew he could be paralyzed if the cracking noise came from his throat.

“I have been doing breathing exercises to calm myself for several years. At that moment, I used them to calm me down,” he says.

When a friend touched his leg and hand and he didn’t feel the touch, he realized he had broken his neck.

As he lay there, he thought of the serenity prayer: “Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” He asked for the serenity to accept whatever physical limitations were in front of him.

“I knew there was less than a 5% chance that I would ever walk again. I may never have surgery again and I may never hold my unborn child in my arms.” Marco also knew he needed to get to a hospital as soon as possible, so he helped coordinate his rescue and arrived in less than 3 hours in the hospital and then in the operating room, which he describes as “wonderful”.

He considers himself lucky that he never despaired because he had already used meaningful practices and resorted to them after his accident.

“I knew it was important for me to do my best to live in the present moment and not dwell on the past or worry about the future; just try to smell and taste and hear and feel. I did that all day and tried to be as present as possible.”

‘Why Not Me?’

After her accident, Srinivasan initially fell into despair. “I wasn’t coping well with what had happened and I was trying to escape this new reality in any way I could,” she says.

She felt an acute sense of loss. “For the first 18 years of my life, I had excelled effortlessly in everything, and the future seemed filled with endless possibilities,” she says. “Then in a split second it was all over and I had to accept life in a wheelchair.”

What was particularly painful was how others treated her. “All my life I’ve been looked up to, seen as a role model and a hero, and now suddenly people were looking down on me as if I had ceased to exist. I could not bear it. I felt invisible and devalued, and for two years I tried to lock myself in.”

She wondered what she could have done to deserve such a fate. “I was shocked. who was i I didn’t know and I didn’t want to know either. I just wanted to die.”

Her parents’ unconditional love and wisdom slowly brought her out and gave her a deeper understanding of life. Srinivasan’s father advised her not to ask, “Why me? Why did this happen to me?” Instead, he advised asking, “Why Not me?”

He encouraged Srinivasan to use her injury as an opportunity. “Your body is going,” he told her. “Every body goes – if not today then in 10 years and if not in 10 years then in 50 years. Look within and find within yourself what can never be taken away, what can never go.”

It was the beginning of a deep inner journey. Srinivasan began expressing himself through mouth painting. “Slowly, I started getting excited about life again,” she says. “My parents gave me a beautiful spiritual lineage and by grace I began to heal from within.”

“There is a plan for me”

A few weeks before the accident, Marco had begun to start the day by listing three things for which he is grateful, three things that excite him, a daily focus, a daily affirmation and a daily training schedule. He placed this practice in his new reality.

“I was grateful for life, grateful for my breath, and grateful for my recovery program,” he says. “I was excited to see my family, my friends and my caregivers. My daily affirmation was, ‘I am enough,’ and my daily routine was to get out of bed and into the chair.” At night, when he was not sleeping well, the nurses played him a guided meditation.

“These practices gave me meaning and purpose, and I knew there was and is a plan for me, although I wasn’t sure what the plan was,” he says.

Eventually, Marco became involved with the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. “Christopher Reeve was one of my childhood heroes and I saw him play Superman,” says Marco. “I remember the day he was injured and I remember his performance at the Oscars when he was on a ventilator, which was so inspiring to me.”

Marco remembered this speech when he was in intensive care. “I knew I wanted to do something he was doing, which is try to find a cure and raise money for spinal cord injury research, which is part of my role at the foundation, as well as raising awareness about mental health and introducing more people to mindfulness and mindfulness-based meditation.”

Found Soulfree

When Srinivasan’s father was alive, “he took care of everything” and allowed her and her mother to be “in a bubble of security, isolated and isolated.” But after his sudden death from cardiac arrest in 2007, there was no financial support. A few years later, her mother underwent heart bypass surgery.

“We began to wonder what would happen to me if my mother could no longer care for me, and we began looking in India for long-term care facilities equipped to care for a person in my condition,” says Srinivasan .

She was “shocked” to find that there was not a single long-term care facility in all of India where a person with a spinal cord injury (SCI) could live with dignity. “So if a woman’s parents or family in my condition aren’t able to take care of her, there’s no way out,” she says.

She began hearing horrifying stories: “Family members of women with SCI often find a disabled daughter shameful and refuse to feed or care for her. Two families even provided their daughters with poison and encouraged them to kill themselves.”

The lack of support for people with spinal cord injuries prompted Srinivasan to found Soulfree, an organization dedicated to creating long-term care centers across India that are equipped to provide ongoing care for people with severe disabilities and ensure they are cared for be trained for jobs and financial security, she says.

In addition to her work with Soulfree, Srinivasan is a motivational speaker, holds a Masters in Psychology and is a Senior Research Fellow pursuing a PhD at the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras.

“I know that I am being kept alive on this earth for a higher purpose,” she says. “I’m content to be fully alive in this moment, trying to spread love, light and laughter in this world.”

Helpful Resources

Research shows that people who have supportive family, friends, and community, as well as a spiritual connection, are more able to cope with the challenges of finding a new identity, meaning, and purpose after a spinal cord injury.

The Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation’s National Paralysis Resource Center offers free resources on living with paralysis, including a blog where people with spinal cord injuries describe how they found meaning after their accident. Psychotherapy or participation in a support group (in person or online) or peer counseling e.g. through the Foundation’s Peer and Family Support Program, can also be helpful.

For more resources and inspiration, see:


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Finding purpose and joy after a spinal cord injury
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