Against the odds

Imaduddin Ahmed | The Friday Times

Sana Khurshid
Sana Khurshid finds that attitudes and care for quadriplegics are worlds apart in England and Pakistan

Sana Khurshid has been an eye catcher since I can remember. Active, outgoing, good-humoured and pretty, she was she was the subject of my first serious crush. I know I have not been in exclusive company.

If you’ve recently seen a young, attractive woman driving her electric wheelchair around restaurants, clubs and weddings in Lahore and Islamabad, it’s likely that Sana Khurshid, a quadriplegic since 2002, has also caught your eye.

Sana was paralysed from the neck down, following a road accident on the Lahore-Islamabad motorway. Her eldest sister Sonia Omar Jilani and another woman were killed. Proper paramedic care was not forthcoming. “If we had had proper paramedic care, I wouldn’t have been in such a bad condition,” comments Sana. Well-meaning but ill-informed witnesses to the accident – a burst tyre toppling the van over – pulled Sana from all directions, and tried to make her walk when her neck had been broken. Later, she was taken across a rutty road to the hospital.

The subsequent professional nursing care that she received left a lot to be desired. Sandbags and neck collars to stabilise the neck were unavailable even at the Provincial Spinal Injury Unit (Lahore District General Hospital).

Sana remembers cockroaches and cats running around a filthy ward with plants making their way in through the ceiling and a noisy environment. Friends and family were her primary carers and Sana recalls little intervention on the part of nurses. Unable to talk after a badly done operation, Sana’s only means of communication was by blinking while at the Punjab Institute of Cardiology. To get the attention of sleeping nurses, Sana would bite on her ventilator tube to stop her oxygen supply and set off the alarm. “Considering I was a protocol patient, I can’t imagine how the nurses treated other people.”

Since leaving the hospital, Sana has tried a number of nurses and physiotherapists, but feels that they’ve all been under-trained.

“I think we don’t have proper nursing institutes. I’e gone through so many full time carers but they don’t know what to do. They pretend they’re fainting or if you puke, they go, ‘Oh God, what should we do?’ and make faces. In England, the nurses know what they’re doing, they take charge, they make you feel comfortable and they plan out a full day’s regime for you. I still need surgery but there’s no way I’m going to have it done here. The nurses are not trained to treat people.”

It is this lack of confidence in Pakistan trained nurses that lead Sana and her family to visit the greener pastures of Aylesbury, England – a town with excellent nursing care and accessibility for wheelchair users of all socioeconomic backgrounds – for Sana’s rehabilitation.

Here Sana met with Tony (Yawer Najeeb), a British Pakistani who had similar injuries to Sana’s in a road accident. With the help of compassionate nursing care, Tony rebuilt his life. He married his nurse, had children with her through IV fertilisation, drives a custom made car and runs a thriving sportscar exhausts business. Tony has been a ray of hope for Sana. “It was very inspiring for me to see him. I thought it was just going to be me and my bed. It was encouraging to see that no! life doesn’t stop. You can manage.”

And so it was that Sana started coming to terms with her condition. “Rehab is not exercising muscles, it’s about living a normal life. I’ve got bent fingers, but I can use them to use the computer. . .

“I didn’t go as a patient on my second trip to Aylesbury. The people there made me feel like a normal person. It was a big change for me. I could step out and didn’t have to think twice about it. I could get myself things from the supermarket or go to the cinema. I could go to London. It made me feel strong.”

Hope in the future that may open up and confidence in her care brought a change in Sana’s attitude towards her exercises. In her second trip to Aylesbury, Sana’s back strength improved so that she can now sit up without support and her arm strengthened so that she can now operate her remote controlled wheelchair.

For her, Aylesbury contrasts starkly to Lahore, where a favourite pastime is cold staring and survivors are regarded as victims: “I feel so annoyed when people here refer to me as a patient. I want this patient stigma to end. I went to a mehndi last night and there were good educated people. People were turning their heads and staring. Maybe it’s because I’m so pretty, but seriously it’s like they’ve never seen a young person in a wheelchair before – and maybe they havenn’t. Half of the time they think I’ve got a leg injury and I can walk or that I have a mental disability. I think people need to be more aware and sensitive about disabilities.”
It’s not a matter of bad nature, argues Sana, it’s a matter of bad habit. “I have so many good people in this country too. So many random strangers on the street have said they’ll pray for me.” Never short of ideas, Sana suggests that schools and universities become more wheelchair user friendly. Not only will the interaction be good for wheelchair users who want to lead normal lives, the wider population will also be better equipped to accept people with disabilities. 

Sana is quick to note that she is more fortunate than most quadriplegics in Pakistan. Sana comes from a family of doctors. Amongst her very committed friends, some are also now graduating as doctors, as Sana was a first year student at the Lahore Medical and Dental College when the accident happened.

“It struck me how lucky I was to have a supportive family when the earthquake happened. I was at HobNob and there the serving waiter came up to me and said, ‘Looking at you reminds me of my sister who is in hospital in ‘Pindi.’

“I told him to tell her to be positive.

“How can I tell her that when we’ve lost five members of our family. There’s only her and me.”

I thought of all the children who had lost their limbs and families in the earthquake and really thanked God. I complain and really I have no right to complain at all.”

This positive mindset has put Sana on track to tackle the University of London external law programme. She also intends to start an association of wheelchair users and wants to destigmatise disabilities in Pakistani eyes, “I’m taking the first step by going out into public places where people will see me and come to terms with my condition.”

Sana Khurshid would like to network with other wheelchair users. Her email address


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