Despite sustaining a severe brain injury in a car accident in 2004, Raj Singh Gataora has shared his words of positivity in several public speaking engagements around the UK. This is his inspiring talk for the World Congress on Cultural Psychiatry on Resilience and Recovery, eight years on.

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My name is Jisraj Singh Gataora, my friends and family call me Raj. Welcome to a talk on my own personal experience of Recovery following my road traffic accident in 2004.

I would like to begin with by briefly sharing my life with you before my accident.

I was studying criminology and sociology at Manchester Metropolitan University. I made loads of friends as I was a people person and loved my full social life, becoming the resident DJ at the University. I returned home at the end of the academic year and went on a holiday to Ireland with a friend.

I knew my friends had organised a big party to celebrate my 22nd birthday on my return to university. However, life had something else in store for me. 

On 24th August 2004 I was involved in a road traffic accident 5 minutes away from my home. A deer appeared out of nowhere and froze in the middle of the road. I tried to save it by swerving out of it’s path but caught it on the driver side. That sent my car into a spin and down a slope ending with the car hitting a tree.  

I was lucky as there was a car behind me, the driver witnessed the incident and was able to summon the emergency services immediately.  I was told by the police and medical staff that if there hadn’t been anyone on the road, the consequences would have been devastating.

Although I was awake on arrival to the hospital, the doctors had to put me on a life support machine as I had sustained severe head injuries.  

My parents were told I had a few hours to live due to the swelling of my brain. I lived, but was in a coma for approximately 6 weeks. My parents belief and faith kept them going and the knowledge that I always did what was needed to be done in my own time! This thought process kept them going and on the positive path, which was the best way they could have ever helped me. They refused to give up on me.

I don’t remember the actual accident and have patchy memory of my stay at the hospital.

I started to regain consciousness slowly six weeks after the accident. Although I appeared to be awake and able to respond to any questions I have no recollection of that time. However, one thing I do remember clearly is when I first became aware of my surroundings.  

It was in the early hours of the morning, about 3/4am. I saw a male nurse, Keith, around my bed. I thought I was dreaming and was certain that I was asleep at my grandparent’s house in Luton. I remember feeling very frightened. I became aware of something stuck in my throat, I couldn’t talk, my body appeared to be out of control, in that I couldn’t move! You might be able to imagine that the whole experience was what nightmares are made of.

My fear soon turned to worry that my parents did not know my whereabouts and will be very worried. I somehow managed to explain to Keith I wanted to call my parents and told him the number to dial. My relief to be able to hear their voices and reassurances that everything will be alright is indescribable.  

I feel this is the moment in time that I can pinpoint as the start of, what I have come to regard, as my recovery.

Whilst lying in the hospital bed helpless, not able to move, all I had was my thoughts.  My thoughts were telling me it is just a minor injury, like having a cold, and I would be alright.  I had no realisation of the full intensity of the injury or that it would take this long.

Due to the injuries, I have ataxia of the upper body which has hindered my independence in terms of being able to eat and walk. 

I was discharged from hospital to a rehabilitation unit. I remember having enormous expectations and hopes about rehabilitation; It would get me back to my “normal” self.

I am thankful to everyone involved in my care as they did their best to mobilise me. However, their attempts to make me think ‘out of the box’ with repeated questions, like “give an example of something painful; courageous” etc ended up frustrating me more than helping me. All I wanted was to be able to sit, stand, walk, eat by myself and talk for myself. 

Every person ranging from consultants to the care assistants tended to talk to my parents or whoever was in the room with me. No attempt was ever made to talk to me, about me!! It was as if I was invisible. This frustrated me and made me feel angry and ‘worthless’ due to their perception of me as I was in a wheelchair. In addition, I was told by the doctors that university was not realistic, which made me even more determined to accomplish the impossible and prove all the professionals wrong.

It was difficult not to be touched by feelings of hopelessness and fear at times.

Every time medication was prescribed, mainly to control the ataxia, there was so much joy and hope of success, but when my shaking either became worse or there was no change, the despair matched the joy – so it was not a very nice place to be. 

I was not going to let negative messages and feelings stop me getting better.  I repeatedly told myself that I am a strong-minded person, and no negativity can touch me for long. This mind-set has helped me to get where I am today and will continue in my future achievements.

So is my mind-set to achieve called resilience?  I became aware of the word ‘resilience’ whenever my name was mentioned. However, it is only when I started writing this that I decided to get an understanding of this word.   

According to the online dictionary resilience is: 

“The ability to recover quickly from illness, change, or misfortune”, which, I understand, means to spring back – from A to Z in one go. 

However, for me nothing has been ‘quick’.  It has been a slow but a steady process, tinged with, what some would say, failure, due to the slowness of the process and absence of a dramatic recovery. I feel by looking at the bigger picture, a success, be it minuscule, is nevertheless a success. 

My family have been pivotal in my recovery. This journey of recovery could not have been possible without my immediate and extended families’ encouragement and support. My feelings of helplessness turned to determination of not giving in. I had to take the ‘can’t’ out of my vocabulary.  I always was a positive and a strong-minded person so I was not going to give in.

My parents and sisters have supported me and helped me to cope with life. Their positive thoughts and beliefs have encouraged me to challenge any negative feelings I sometimes have. We are constantly looking at ways to stimulate my brain by identifying alternative treatments like Reiki, Reflexology, Acupuncture.  I have also been to India for Ayurveda treatment at a hospital in Coimbatore. 

I have had treatments that have enormously helped and others that haven’t but the important factor is that without trying I would not have found out. Activities like rock climbing and going to the gym have helped with my co-ordination. Most importantly combined they all helped my self-confidence and independence. As a result, I feel positive and physically strong enough to fulfil my goal of getting back on my feet. This mind-set has helped me get where I am today.

I decided I cannot wait for a ‘cure’ and need to find other ways of getting back to education, to have routine, to ‘live’ my life again. Therefore, to get to university I went back to college and took some A-Levels again, which I passed. I am back at University, in my second year. I am not as independent as I was at Manchester, but I am getting there. My confidence has grown and I am more independent than it was ever thought possible by the medical staff.  

Initially I felt uncomfortable travelling and being out in public on my own but pushing myself has helped me to be independent and less dependent on others.

Therefore, my message to anyone who find themselves where they don’t want to be is: 

  • Recognise and hold on to your strengths. Never let go of your past achievements and future aspirations. 
  • No one knows you better than yourself.
  • Believe in yourself and go forward.

Life is for living, so live it and meet any challenge with positivity.

In the end, I would like to thank everyone who I have come in contact with. I would like to thank my Mother and Father for always being there; my beautiful sisters, Ruppa, Ranee and Rishi for unimaginable love and much needed ‘bullying’ to get me going; all of my extended family and friends. And above all I thank my Gurus.

It is all about hope and I hope someone gets strength from my story!

Who else has a story to tell as I am sure there are other with similar experiences?