Thursday, August 14, 2014

A patient's goal

Sometimes we get so caught up in our lives that we forget about the little things. I remember writing on here once about how a research subject of mine who also uses a wheelchair said to me once, “It’s the little things that you miss the most.” I whole-heartedly agree.

When I couldn’t swallow and had to eat pureed food and drink thickened liquids, I yearned to eat a nice slice of pizza. After about a month and a half, I was finally able to do that on my birthday.

Whenever I see patients who cannot swallow, my heart goes out to them. The taste of both simple and complex foods is something that is not really appreciated by us until we cannot do so. A lot of people I know cannot go a day, let alone a few hours, without eating. Self-control in terms of more sensible/healthy choices versus unhealthy options is also becoming rare. Food is the drug we take advantage of and abuse.

During my first month as a “real doctor”, I worked in the spinal cord injury unit at the VA hospital. I developed a good relationship with my patients there. There was one patient in particular with whom I would just sit by and talk with for a long time. He was on a ventilator and could not speak, so he would mouth his words out to me. It would take a long time for him to tell me things, but we made it work. A feeding tube had been placed so he did not eat. I did not ask him the last time it was that he ate or drank something but he told me how he really misses eating and misses the taste of the food we all indulge in, like burgers and pizza. He had a lower cervical level spinal cord injury, which meant he was paralyzed from neck down and had the ability to use his arms but not his fingers. He was in the hospital being treated for a large pressure ulcer on his backside. Every day I saw him, he was in the same position lying in bed and watching TV. He always had a smile on his face and he always greeted everyone warmly.

He told me something that again made me thankful for everything. This patient’s goal and what he wanted most? To go outside and feel the sun on his face. He told me that he had only been outside four times very briefly since November 2013.

I love the feeling of the warm sun after being inside an air conditioned room all day. I cannot imagine going months without seeing the sun or feeling and breathing in the air outside.

As busy as I am, I made time to see this patient and talk with him. My heart was touched and I was reminded again of how far I have come, how blessed I am and how grateful I should be for everything, especially the little things that may not seem important to some people.

I promised my patient that once he is strong enough and his wound heals up enough, I will take him outside. He promised me that once he gets out of the hospital, he will buy me a cheeseburger.


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Five years

I know it’s been a while. My life has been very busy yet also filled with a whole lot of beautiful, blissful nothingness. I guess you could say I have taken a leave of absence from writing and I will on another day touch upon why that is so. 

So far, 2014 has been pretty good to me.

I thankfully matched into great residency programs. I am doing one year of internal medicine at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta and then I will be specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. I also graduated and earned my medical degree this past May. I am now a real doctor.

People turn to me for help. For the most part, I am no longer seen as an invalid. For the most part, I am respected now. I have the privilege of seeing people when they are most vulnerable. I have the ability to help and to heal.

The things for which I worked so hard my whole life, especially these past five years, have finally come to fruition. I struggled so much these past five years.

My friend’s father suffered a hemorrhagic stroke the other night and is still unconscious. It reminds me of my traumatic brain injury that also resulted in a significant brain bleed. I was in a comatose state for about two weeks. My doctors at first did not think I would survive. After I survived the most critical time period, my family and friends were told that I may suffer significant mental deficits. I am forever grateful that I made it through better than what was expected.

When I wasn’t able to lift my right arm, I worked hard to get it stronger and stronger. I could not transfer onto things by myself but I worked at it just so I could move out of my family’s home and live by myself and attend medical school. That was my dream and I had to hold on to it. It was one of the very few things I still had left.

I didn’t want a van. I wanted a car. I didn’t want a big power wheelchair. I wanted a small, manual wheelchair. I wanted to be as “normal” as I could be.

When I had to see a neuropsychologist and speech therapist every week and they told me that I was not mentally the same and that I had to adapt, I ignored them. This was my chance. I had been given a second lease on life. Who knows how much longer I would have. So many things had been taken from me. I had to use whatever I still had left. If not for myself, then for everyone else I have come across who are in much worse conditions than I am or ever have been.

I would have to be the best I could be.

It has been five years.

That’s half a decade.

That’s half of the age of my youngest sister.

Things could have been totally different. Some say that things should have been totally different. I may be an outlier.

But I refuse to live life with the societal restraints of simple terms such as “handicapped” or “disabled” that people use when they themselves have not come to term with their disadvantages.

I do not remember what it was like to walk. I do not remember what it was like to stand. I do not remember the feeling of sand between my toes while on the beach. I do not remember running, jumping, playing or lifting.

But these things do not bother me. I have learned that life is not something onto which we can hold. It is not supposed to be perfect. The future cannot be feared. These past five years have shown me that.

And now, looking back, I would not want my life to be any other way.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

My speech at the BHS Baccalaureate Ceremony, 05/18/2014

I know it has been an incredibly long time (five months!) since my last blog post. Once this blog became more popular and started to hit a few thousand views each month from people all over the world, I started writing less and less. I will write something and post something up this week or early next week and update everyone with where I have been and what has been going on in my life. In the meantime, here is the talk I gave at the Brookwood High School Baccalaureate Ceremony this past May. I graduated from Brookwood High School in 2005 and was asked to speak at this ceremony.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

A recent exchange

An interesting exchange happened between a physician and me earlier this week. I had seen him before but did not know his name, so I decided to say hi and introduce myself. After we greeted each other, the conversation went something like this:

“I’m here for a few weeks doing a rotation,” I tell him.
“What year are you in? Third year?” he asks.
“Fourth year.”
“So you already applied for residency? What are your top places that you want to go to?”
I tell him my top three choices and expect him to congratulate me for getting those interviews or to tell me good luck or something like that.
He quickly responds, “Oh, okay. You had your accident when you were coming back home from Augusta, right?”
I did not expect that. I smile a little. “Yes,” I respond.
“So, you cannot walk at all? Can you move your legs at all?”
“No….” I am not sure where this conversation is going.
“So, is there any hope for you to walk again?”
“Well, I have been this way for almost five years and I have not gotten anything back. But it’s okay.” I give him a big smile.
                “Well, I’m sure there is something out there, like something that stimulates the nerves to move the legs and allows you to walk again.”
                “Yeah, I’m sure there is. Alright, I have to go see a patient right now. It was good seeing you,” I say to him and then go away.

How did that conversation make you feel?

There are a few things wrong with that exchange. I hope you noticed them.

I did not really know the guy. I recognized his face, but that is all. After we greeted each other, he asked and I told him about the prestigious places I interviewed at to complete my medical training and specialization. One would expect to receive a response with comments or questions related to what I had just said. Instead, the immediate next questions were about my disability and if there was any hope for me. I get asked why I am in a wheelchair nearly every day and I do not mind it at all. But I was not sure what that topic had to do with me completing medical school and starting a medical residency program.

This was a reminder.

It was a reminder to me that despite everything, some people will look at me and still only see my disability. I have and will always strive to be the best I can be in order to overcome this mentality, but it persists. The things I have accomplished and hope to accomplish do not mean much to a lot of people. They will always see my wheelchair before they see me.

Everything in my life may be going great but, for some, I will always be imperfect because of what they see when they look at me.

As I mentioned in my last talk, I am still looked down upon and pitied.

I will never be considered whole.

Another thing wrong with that conversation is what the physician said to me afterwards about how he is sure there will be some technological or medical breakthrough in the future that will help me.

Please do not get me wrong; I would give up my life savings and my salary for the next 10 years to walk and be able-bodied again.

But I do not need to be consoled. Well, at least not for the wrong reasons. The hidden, unconscious feelings that some have when saying those types of things to me is pity, gratitude that it is me and not them in this situation, and also bewilderment that life can go on despite these obstacles. All of these thoughts and feelings express a deep seated belief that the lives of others are better than mine and, essentially, that other people are better than me.

This is not an issue of pride for me.

People think that life would surely end if the ability to walk or to be “normal” was permanently taken away at such a young age.  Life will always be imperfect. Life will be different and, obviously, there is clearly something wrong with being different.

The people closest to me and I would like to be appreciated for the things I have done and for who I am. Instead of giving off positive vibes, the feelings and vibes given off my others are often negative. That is what I am trying to express right now. The seemingly innocent pity when people say these things carries with it an implication that there is something wrong with me as a person and that I will never be complete. Yes, my life and the lives of those close to me may be a little different, but we are happy. I live an amazing life that is full of love. I am at peace and I am content.

These are feelings that people strive for and work towards their whole lives without attaining.

I of course know that people will always see my wheelchair when they look at me. That is obvious. I just hope that one day, people will measure my worth by my character and accomplishments, and not judge me by what they see as my imperfections.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Everyone has a Disability - Moving Forward

I know I have not written anything in a very long time. In addition to traveling for interviews, I have been working hard in hospitals/clinics and also relaxing a lot. I have written plenty of notes and thoughts on scraps of paper over the past several months, but no formal blog posts. I am enjoying each day and if I am not required to spend a lot of time in front of a computer, I will not do so and that means I may not do much formal writing. My free time is spent being with friends or reading books. Now that I am done traveling and interviewing, I hope to get back to writing, too.

I gave a talk entitled "Everyone has a Disability - Moving Forward" at the annual U Beyond event at the Atlanta Symphony Hall in late January. My talk was recorded but I realize that some of you would prefer to read the transcript instead. I will post the video, too, once I find the link. I am providing the transcript below.


I want everyone here to take a moment to think back and reflect upon what their first impressions were as I was introduced and as I came onto this stage.

I always wonder what people think about when they first meet me. A lot of times, I can see it in their eyes or hear it in their tone of voice.

And as you get to know me more, these thoughts evolve.

I am speaking to a pretty diverse audience here today. I know what some of you may be thinking. For some, it may be admiration.

I know others may be thinking, “Aw, look at this guy. I feel sorry for those close to him. I feel sorry for his parents.”

Quite frankly, I do not feel sorry for my parents. I do not feel sorry for myself. And hopefully, by the end of this, you won’t either.

I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with my story, so I’ll go through it briefly. About 5 years ago, I was just like any one of you in their early 20’s. I was having fun, loving life, and I didn’t have a care in the world. Just like every young person, I thought I was invincible. I had tons of opportunities available to me in life that were still open  for me to accomplish. Then, one fateful afternoon, everything was taken from me.

I woke up in the hospital a few weeks after a devastating car accident and at first was not aware of the extent of my injuries. “Everything is fine. Everything is normal. There is no way this is happening to me,” I thought. Because let’s be honest:  who here ever does imagine or expect their life to change more drastically than they could ever even think?

Over the next few weeks, I learned more and more about my injuries. I had suffered a T3 complete spinal cord injury, a traumatic brain injury, and a C5 brachial plexus injury. But I was hopeful. Just like people would always tell me, I also told myself that I would be fine. I would recover 100% and be back to the way I used to be.

Other times, when I was alone in my hospital room with nothing but my thoughts, a little voice in my head would whisper, “Is this it, Hammad? This is my life? What am I to do now?”

Lying in bed, I knew I had a choice to make:  to let this rule me or for me to rule it.

So, I pushed through. Thankfully, I have the most wonderful family, friends and physicians. There was a lot that I had to overcome. Needless to say, things have not been easy for me. My life had changed completely. I did not know what to expect.

There were many things that I had to overcome. I knew what I wanted to do. I knew that somehow, things would work out. Though I was optimistic, I did my best to remain a realist. So, I spent 3 months as an inpatient at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. After that, I spend several months in and out of outpatient rehab.

I wanted so badly to get up and walk again. I wanted to be that person. Almost everyone I know told me I was going to be that person and that I would walk again. We all believed it. “You don’t know how many people out there are praying for you,” people would tell me.

How could I ever accept anything less than walking? How could I ever accept and live my life in a wheelchair? How could I accept defeat? Was that a true defeat? If I did not accomplish what I wanted, would I be a failure? Would others look at me and think I am a failure because I was not healed?

Most importantly, would I consider myself a failure?

I’ve never been one to accept failure or defeat. So, a year after my accident, I moved out of my parents‘ home into a new apartment and started medical school.

Still, things were not easy. Not only was I having to face the challenges of medical school, which is enough for anyone to get through, I was also trying to learn how to live on my own, live with my disability, and be the best I could be.

There were some times when I was so distraught and so frustrated. I would just lie in bed and think about how different my life would be if this had never happened to me or if I was back to “normal” again.  I did not expect life to be this way and I definitely did not expect medical school to be this way. Becoming a doctor was my dream. But I didn’t want to become a doctor with a disability.

I knew I had to move forward. I knew I had to accept things.

If someone were to ask me what my greatest accomplishment was, what do you think my answer would be? Getting into medical school? No. Surviving and going through medical school? No. Surviving the accident? No. Surviving months and months of physical therapy to get my body strong enough for me to live on my own? No.

Sometimes our greatest battles are not ones that people can outwardly see.

My biggest accomplishment was my acceptance.

No, I was not accepting defeat. Just because I was not healed and back to the way everyone expected does not mean that I’m a quitter, or a failure, or that I just settle for less than the best.

Finally accepting things meant that I was able to not only acknowledge my disability, but also to life with it, grow with it, and flourish with it.

You see, we all have something that is holding us back from reaching our true potential; from truly growing and flourishing, in all aspects of life. We may or may not have acknowledged them yet. But really, I suggest all of you to take some time alone, get away from technology and everything else for a night or perhaps for a long time, and truly reflect. I know I am speaking to a pretty diverse audience here who are from various backgrounds. So, what is holding you back? For some, it may be anger. For others, it may be jealousy. It may be our ego.

You see, we have to realize that our time on this earth limited, therefore it does not matter if life has to be lived with a visible handicap like mine or any other, but we also have to realize that we are all struggling. We all experience pain. And we all have our insecurities and our ego. We are not special or all that different from each other.

So, after I was able to accept that I had a physical handicap that is visible to the world, I realized I had it easy. Yes, you heard that correctly. I am thankful. I have life much easier compared to many of you. The rest of you have to hide your handicaps and your insecurities, hide your anger, hide your fears, hide the things in your past that you have done that still haunt you to this day. I do not have to do it. I am an open book.

I still had my mind, and that was the greatest gift. But, most importantly, I had been given time. I had not died in that accident. I had been a second lease on life.  A few things had been taken away from me. I cannot do many things that I have always wanted to do. But with everything taken away, I have been able to truly appreciate everything I do have. And with all these things I have remaining, and with the life that I have ahead of me, I knew that I could be the best that I could be. I know my limitations. These are simply physical. But everything else in my life has no limitation. I have the power to change and the power to be better. And so do all of you.

I want to end this talk by an email I received from a close friend of mine about 5 months after my injury:



I know my words kinda suck when I try to encourage you sometimes.  I do hope you'll forgive me because I realize nothing I say can hold any weight since I haven't gone through what you've gone through, and I really can't relate as well as I would like to.  I just want to say that I'm happy you're alive.  You may not be right now, but just think if you would have been ready to meet your Creator on that day. […] Don't forget that no matter how alone you may feel, everyone's thoughts and prayers and hopes are with you.  They are looking to you, hoping that at least you'll be happy in any condition, that you'll be their hometown hero, showing resilience in the face of enormous hardship.  You can serve as a reminder to everyone that their hardships are nothing in comparison and if you are able to overcome your own, then they can also overcome their own with faith and perseverance.  I don't know if that sounds like a huge burden or if it sounds encouraging to you, but I'm just hoping I can help you understand that you have indeed gained a very valuable gift, however disguised it might seem.  […]

Khair, I honestly don't want to sound like I'm preaching.  It's not like you don't already know all of this stuff.  I'm just hoping the reminder would encourage you that at least there's one person beyond your family who believes in you (and rest assured there are hundreds more people who care just as much as I do, if not more).  

So, I actually rode on Greyhound when I came back to Atlanta for Eid, and I met this woman who was a writer on the way there.  I asked her to read one of her poems for me, and she read the following piece.  I liked it so much, I gave her $20 for a printed copy, even though she only asked for $2.  I bought it for you.  She said you may not be ready for the poem because it took her father over two years before he came to peace with his paralysis, but I figure I would go ahead and let you read it at least.  I've typed it exactly as she printed it on a piece of fancy paper:

My Father's Legacy
In honor of my father
Ollie Christmas
Oct. 3, 1930 - 

It was a heinous bullet to the spine,
That caused my father enormous grief,
Thought he could no longer play the ladies' man,
From his anguish there was no relief.

At first he thought he would kill himself
For he could no longer see his worth.
Thought of everything short of selling his soul
For another chance to walk this earth.

When those feelings finally subsided
But he still couldn't function as before;
He was forced to dig deep down inside
To come up with something more.

And his legacy, had he not lost his legs
I cannot say what it would have been.
But the man that rose from that mess of a test
Is to many, a wonderful friend.

Through the years he's been there for his children
Always doing whatever he could
Taught us resourcefulness beyond belief;
Gave us a basic grasp on good.

Sometimes I wonder, 'Did he call the thing
That happened so long ago?
That took what he thought was his manhood
Yet allowed greater manhood to show.

I say, "Thank you" to my Daddy
For the strength he mustered in his soul
As the whole man who was half-a-man
Became the half-a-man who's whole.

(c) Revised Copyright 2007, Andikaa Delphine Peterson-Hill, Divine Celestial Design Publications

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Just say it

It has been a while since I have written anything on here. There are several reasons for that and I may eventually explain them. One of them simply is because I have been doing a lot of traveling and interviewing these past several months. I am also speaking at an event at the end of next week and am not even sure what I want to say. I guess I should explain why I am like that.

I do not think of things ahead of time. I do not prepare for interviews. Similarly, I do not have multiple drafts or blog posts or anything else I write. Many times, I do not feel like reading over what I just wrote, which may explain typos or other errors I may have. Just like my blog posts, I wrote my personal statement for residency in one sitting and then submitted it. I knew I could do it. I like it that way.

Why? How is this possible?

Because I speak from the heart. More importantly I am not afraid to show my vulnerabilities.

I feel like preparing things ahead of time or having multiple drafts of something will prevent me from revealing the truth. I do not want to second guess myself. If I say something, it is because I feel it.

Because of this, I do not get nervous when I have to speak publicly. I do not get nervous before interviews, no matter how important they may be.

I do not understand why people get nervous. If they are afraid of the consequences, perhaps of a certain interview or speech they have to give, they need not be. They are who they are; nothing more, nothing less.  If the interviewer does not like you for who you are, you are probably not a good fit there anyway. If one is worried about being judged by others, such as an audience, I must ask:  who are these people to judge you? How do they have a right to make judgments about anyone? They, too, have hopes, have fears and have loves. If the roles were switched, would they have the same concerns?

By fully expressing yourself a lot of times, you are not really showing you are unique. You are showing that you are more similar than they had thought and that they, too, have a secret life just like you.

Do not impress. Do not try to be anything more (or less) than what you are. I have found that by being purely honest and exposing my vulnerabilities—no matter how odd or weak I think I may seem at times—I am able to relate with others and they are able to relate to me. We spend too much time and effort trying to make us seem stronger and more impressive than we really are.

I do believe that this will help me in my future profession as a physician and that having this outlook may help others in their profession, but it should not stop with just our careers. With everything we do, see or talk about in life, we need to realize how connected we are to each other.

This is real. Life is real. We either live without regrets or we watch as it passes us by.