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

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