This quad-amputee became a blade runner at 36 and is now preparing for the Paralympics
A rare bacterial disease led to the amputation of Shalini Saraswathi’s limbs when she was in her 30s. At 36, she took up running and is now preparing for the Paralympics to be held next year. She is also a motivational speaker and blogger with her own original series on Firework.
In 2012, Shalini Saraswathi was in Cambodia celebrating her fourth wedding anniversary with her husband when she contracted rickettsia with morts, a rare bacterial disease that is endemic to Southeast Asia.
It was only a month after coming back that Shalini started showing symptoms like fatigue and fever. However, she attributed it to her pregnancy and continued with her work.
However, the symptoms persisted, but doctors suspected dengue or malaria as her platelet count was very low. She was admitted to a hospital in the city as her condition deteriorated and she was not even able to walk.
“I had a really tough night when I was admitted to the hospital. I had trouble breathing,” Shalini tells HerStory.
“That's my last memory of going into the ICU because after that I went into a coma. I don't remember what happened for the next week. During that period, it got worse,” Shalini recounts.
Her body instead of fighting the bacteria fought her healthy cells. She went into multiple organ failure, her heart stopped beating twice, her lungs filled with water and she was put on life support.
The doctors thought she had a very slim chance of survival and had informed her family. But on April 5, which was also her birthday, Shalini woke up from the coma.
After the coma
On waking up, Shalini realised that her limbs had blisters and had turned black and blue, and couldn’t feel or move her limbs. The doctors told her that there was a likely chance that she might have to amputate her limbs.
“I remember being very calm about it because I just thought he was joking, because you don't go into a hospital with fever and lose all your limbs,” says Shalini.
Shalini came home and started looking at alternative medicine and Ayurveda. She says she also entertained borderline quacks because she wanted something to work.
Two months later, her limbs were affected by gangrene due to lack of blood flow. She sought treatment from an Ayurvedic practitioner in Palakkad, Kerala and her gangrene slowly decreased.
Meanwhile, Shalini started working from home for a BPO, an industry she continues to work in even today. In March 2013, the constant use of the laptop and the spread of the infection resulted in a fracture in her left hand.
Her left arm had to be amputated and six months later, her infected right arm fell off in what is medically termed as auto-amputation.
“That’s when we figured that there is no point in waiting. At that point close to about two years, I was in bed because I was absolutely immobile,” Shalini says. In September 2013, Shalini decided to have her legs amputated as well.
“Until then we were hoping that we'll be able to save at least one hand - that was what the ask was,” says the 41-year-old blade runner.
After her amputation, Shalini switched to prosthetic blades. It wasn’t easy, she says, adding, she had been in bed for over a year-and-a-half and had forgotten what it was like to walk and be on her feet.
As a double amputee, Shalini could have her prosthetics custom-made to increase her height.
“I was very excited because I have been under five feet all my life. I have been called “shorty” all my life and the other jibes that you get for being short. So, I jumped at the chance to grow taller,” she says.
With her prosthetics, she was able to reach a height of 5’4 and also has an extra pair that are a bit longer as well.
Becoming a blade runner
Being immobile for a long time had resulted in gaining some weight and Shalini wanted to get healthier. However, traditional setups like gyms were not disabled-friendly and most trainers were not equipped to train someone like her.
This is when Shalini found coach BP Aiyappa through a friend. Shalini spent the next year training with him at the Kanteerava Stadium every morning from Monday to Saturday. In 2016, on his suggestion, she started running and she got hooked on it. The same year, she took part in the TCS 10K and finished with a time of 2:02 hours and in 2017, she bettered the time to complete in 1:35 hours. In 2018, she also took part in the Nationals and won third place in 100 metre sprints.
However, during these races, Shalini had to stop in between, take off her prosthetics, wipe them off due to excessive sweat and then continue with the race.
Each prosthetic weighed two-and-a-half kilos. Initially, she would “waddle like a duck” and get blisters.
She has also broken down in the middle of the road many times because she was in a lot of pain because she was too tired to continue walking.
“Initially I thought that's it, I'm never going to be able to walk and was probably going to be restricted within four walls and thought the worse was going to happen,” she adds.
In such times, she received support and comfort from her near and dear ones. Her father played a huge role in helping her walk again. As a dancer, he helped her find the rhythm to walk. He would walk with her for five minutes, then increase it to ten. Initially, he would walk with her around the house and then slowly accompanied her on walks outside.
Shalini is now an accomplished para-athlete and is training to qualify for next year’s Paralympics in Japan.
Apart from being a professional athlete, Shalini is also a motivational speaker and blogger. She is also the deputy general manager at First Source Solutions, a BPO company. During the lockdown, Shalini started vlogging with Firework, a Silicon Valley-based app that features original content series and enables its users to find, create, and share 30-second videos.
Shalini shares her life lessons on the app as part of its original content series called “Breaking Barriers - Shalini 2.0”. She writes her own content, makes the videos at home and Firework does the editing and mixing work.
“The idea was to normalise disability. I think people have so many hangups and notions about it. There are two images about disability - one is this huge, larger than life - somebody who climbs Mount Everest with no feet - the inspiring image. Or you have the other imagery which is sad, which is typically there in advertisements and cinemas. There is nothing in between that normalises it. People with disabilities exist in the world and we are ten percent of India's population. We are hardly seen and even less heard,” explains Shalini.
Shalini has been releasing five videos every week since the end of August and the page clocked over 2,57,154 unique views in less than a month’s time with one video having views over 200,000, and others with over 13,000 views.
Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan