Sports, travel, business – this survivor won’t be bound by her wheelchair
Bharti Gehani’s life was seemingly sorted. The Mumbai native had a job as the general manager of a salon and spa, a solid group of friends with whom she traveled the world and had just gotten engaged.
In 2008, her world was turned upside down in a matter of seconds.
One night, Bharti and her friends were partying in a packed nightclub in Mumbai to celebrate her engagement.
“I walked up the stairs from the basement to attend a call, and on the staircase someone brushed past me,” says Bharti, now 33.
“I lost my balance and fell. I remember trying to get up to get my phone and call my friends but I just couldn’t move. There was no sensation.”
Bharti was bleeding from her head and had broken her vertebrae. She underwent surgery the next morning for a severe spinal cord injury.
“They tried to fix my spine. There was a neurosurgeon, an orthopaedic surgeon. Everyone tried their best,” she recalls.
When she awoke, she would need a wheelchair for the rest of her life.
“Even after the surgery, I didn’t get my sensations back,” says Bharti.
After 15 days in the hospital doing vigorous physiotherapy, she came to terms with the fact that she was paraplegic.
While initially reluctant to use a wheelchair, Bharti has embraced adaptive technology that helps her remain independent.
“I have a car that’s been modified. It’s totally controlled by hand so I am by and large mobile,” she says.
As with everything else after her accident, Bharti’s relationship with her fiance also changed. Although initially optimistic that she would one day walk again, she took the difficult decision to end the engagement.
“It was a difficult decision but I knew in my heart it was the right one.”
There was more trauma to come. In 2011, Bharti began suffering severe headaches repeatedly. They continued for months until she was finally admitted to hospital, where an MRI revealed a tumour near her forehead. Within a few days, she underwent a ten-hour procedure to remove the tennis ball-sized mass.
Six months later, the tumour returned and she faced brain surgery for the second time.
Bharti is thoughtful and upbeat when recounting her health setbacks.
“I have these issues because I have to learn something from it, I can’t just sit back,” she says.
“I had very good family support, friends’ support. I have to live for them – it’s not about me, it’s about people. So that really kept me going.”
To date, Bharti estimates she’s spent around 21 lakh on various treatments, including alternative therapies such as acupuncture, hydrotherapy, magnet therapy and stem cell therapy. However, she still pursues her hobbies as she had previously done.
After her second surgery, Bharti continued to travel, visiting Hong Kong, Bali, France and the US, among other places. She also renewed her childhood passion for badminton – albeit in a wheelchair – winning gold medals at the district and state levels. She hopes to make it to the national championships one day and represent India at the Paralympic Games.
“That was a great high for me because I was like, ‘Wow, I can do some kind of sport.’”
After being out of the workforce for a few years, a relative connected Bharti to fashion designer Anita Dongre, who hired her as an assistant manager in public relations. Bharti flourished in the role and was even offered a promotion.
“I was very happy there. But inside me there was something telling me that I’m here for a bigger purpose. I need to do something more fulfilling for society.”
Inspired by all the support she received after her accident, Bharti enrolled in a one-year course to become a motivational coach. She’s planning her first seminar for this fall, called Make Up Your Mind.
“I want to do this because I want to add value to people’s lives and give back to society. I’ve realized that if I talk to someone it makes a very big impact.”
She and her best friend have also recently opened the first fully wheelchair accessible salon in India, named Honey Lulla, after her best friend and business partner.
“From the height of the mirror, the bathroom, the pantry, the hair station, the entrance, you can reach anywhere. Everything is wheelchair accessible,” says Bharti.
“Hospitals, restaurants – anywhere in India, there is no accessibility. So I really want to bring that awareness.”
Bharti credits her best friend Honey as her staunchest supporter.
“We’re on this journey together and I hope we can impact people’s lives and do contribute towards people. I’ve just started my journey.”