I Woke Up Totally Paralyzed At 23

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"We would really love to have you by our side at graduation. Will you come?" my friend and former classmate asked as she gripped my lifeless hand. I paused, feeling an uncomfortable lump forming in my throat, and hot tears welling up in my eyes. I looked around to the familiar faces of my other classmates who were quietly sitting with us on my porch, eager for my response. I saw so much pride in their eyes — pride in all they had accomplished, pride in who they were about to become. And I saw a tinge of guilt — guilt in knowing they must leave me behind.

I burst into tears, right then and there, wishing I could just disappear, or simply fade away. A better person would have been able to put her insecurities aside and support her friends, who had always supported her. But in a moment of pure selfishness and vulnerability, I shook my head, tears spilling into my lap. They were my friends whom I loved, but in that moment, they represented the beautiful life I could have had — the beautiful life I should have had.

One evening, when I was 23, during my second year of medical school at Duke University, I woke up in a hospital bed, unable to move a single muscle in my body, unable to utter a single sound or inhale a single breath. I had suffered a massive, life-shattering stroke that left me completely paralyzed from head to toe. I had a condition called “locked-in syndrome,” which left me trapped inside my own unscathed mind, silently watching life pass me by. In one fell swoop, my stroke had stolen my whole world: my future and my value. I was left powerless and hopeless, even though my life had been so powerful and my future so hopeful only seconds earlier.
Before all of this, I had a beautiful life and big dreams. I excelled at school and was studying to become a prestigious doctor. I was a runner, a dancer, a social butterfly, and a world traveler. I was surrounded by fascinating people and wondrous adventures. My life was almost too perfect, and a bright future was mine for the taking. That life was worth something; it was worth living.

Now, my world is limited to my parents’ house and rehabilitation hospitals. I had to drop out of medical school. I watched my boyfriend of two years walk out the door. My once-buzzing social life became nonexistent. I was forced to trade cosmos and cars for puréed foods and wheelchairs. In short, I became a mere shell of my former self, someone I barely even recognized. All I had left were scars — scars left by the friends who tossed me aside, by the boy who made me feel so incurably unlovable, and the deepest scar left by my beautiful dreams I had to let die. I couldn’t become a doctor; I was the one who was severely broken, inside and out. I couldn't marry a wonderful person; nobody would want to be burdened by an invalid. I couldn't change the world when I hated being alive. I stopped dreaming altogether.
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I couldn't change the world when I hated being alive. I stopped dreaming altogether.

I used to want so much more for my life; I used to want so much more out of life. After my stroke, I craved the chance to dream again, but I didn't know what those dreams would look like without functioning arms, legs, or voice. I had no idea where my recovery would take me, so I didn't know what dreams were even appropriate or realistic. I had to search in my heart, through layers of frustration and failure, to find a new purpose and a trace of self-worth. I had to redefine the words "success," "love," and "happiness," and find them somewhere within the ashes of my broken life.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived, this is to have succeeded.” After six long years of recovery, I began to realize and accept that success is not white lab coats or shiny stethoscopes. Success is not name-brand schools or fancy letters following your name. Success is not photos of your beautiful children on Facebook or 300 Likes for your latest Instagram. Success is giving of your strengths, your passions, and yourself to help better the world.

During my long recovery process, I met countless people who suffered from the same unjust fate. And in their faces and experiences, I found my inspiration. In 2014, I co-founded a nonprofit called We Win that supports young stroke and brain/spinal-cord-injury survivors who struggle to afford critical rehabilitation. It started off as a small project, but in just a few years, the foundation has grown, and I’ve been able to connect with dozens of people, help them heal, and (to my surprise) even catch a glimpse of my original dream. While my cousin handles the business aspect of the foundation, I get to do what I love: I meet young survivors and their families, learn about their dreams and goals, talk to their physical therapists, and help them financially access the therapies necessary for their fight.

A few months ago, I received a thank-you gift in the mail from an adorable 7-year-old girl who was fighting for her life after a paralyzing brain tumor and subsequent brain injury. It was a delicate notebook she had made with her very own fully-rehabilitated hands during a therapy session We Win was helping her receive. I burst into tears. In that moment, I felt something — something that had evaded me for years, something I never thought I would feel again: pride in myself.

I felt something I never thought I would feel again: pride in myself.

While writing fundraising letters, I even found a new talent and a new voice — a written voice. Stories about my experience, fears about my future, and lessons I've learned along the way seemed to spew automatically from my freed soul onto the page in a unique mix of vulnerability, grit, and humor. After being silenced by my stroke for so long, writing became my catharsis — my way of connecting with the world. Little did I know, so many people would connect with my writing. I received an email from an old acquaintance who had been contemplating suicide instead of coming out as gay to his conservative parents. He told me he had found strength in my blog, and he thanked me, on behalf of his family and his future partner, for helping him through a terrible time. In that fleeting moment, this entire hellish nightmare felt worth it. And I realized my writing was something more than just for me.

Through the foundation and my writing, I managed to find my purpose and self-worth. They had been there all along; I just had to reclaim them amidst a new dream. Now, I dream of helping thousands of survivors heal. I dream of writing something beautiful. I dream of my charity galas and book-launch parties. Most of all, I dream of helping the world breathe a little easier. This isn't the life I had imagined, not at all, but it is still a life — a good life. I guess the pen and the heart are mightier than the scalpel.

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