With sheer will and creativity, Ravi Sharma made a life of his own, one that others in his life doubted that he could do! Ravi was born with spina bifida and has arthrogryposis. “My family and healthcare providers had a certain idea of what my life should look like, but I was able to build whatever I wanted to build, despite that,” said Ravi. In fact, Ravi took full advantage of high school extra curricular activities such as participating in cross-country events in his wheelchair. It was during practice one day that everything changed.
A negligent driver blowing through a stop sign, hit and dragged Ravi. He suffered multiple fractures to his skull, resulting in a brain injury. Ravi’s body was broken, and he went through 20+ surgeries before rehab. He was starting from scratch…again. Ravi sighs, just thinking about it and says, “You have to be creative, tough, and often deal with a lot of pain. I’d say to myself, ‘OK Ravi, this is the second wave of what your life is going to look like…you should make a plan’.”
Ravi was told by his doctor that he survived this horrendous accident for a reason. “Mobility challenges forced me to be inventive, because the world is not the most accessible,” says Ravi. “I know I am resourceful, but I don’t always have the answers off the bat, all the time. I have learned to step back, reorganize, plan, and then go back to the problem (and solve it). I have learned the value of strength, and the value of ALL I AM. Be appreciative of all you have accomplished.”
Personal experience has always shaped Ravi’s interest in vocational choices. Now a doctoral student in Physical Therapy at the University of Washington, Ravi knows how to guide his patients in recapturing skills lost due to physical setback. And when it comes to using equipment like SideStix, Ravi says with a smile, “If you own it, you can embrace it, and these things become accessories to freedom. They got me up to Crystal Lake and beyond. I pushed even the boundaries I set for myself. SideStix can really show you what you’re made of.”
Now Ravi is exceeding all expectations of himself and using his own life experiences to help shape a better life for others!
What’s your definition of ‘defy convention’?
I was born with spina bifida, and have arthrogryposis. I used to do cross-country in my wheelchair with my high school friends, and almost eight years ago, I was hit and dragged by a negligent driver who blew a stop sign at about 40 miles per hour. I had multiple fractures, brain injury, 20+ surgeries in under a month… I think there was this idea, when I was born, of what my life should look like, but then I was able to build whatever I wanted to build despite that, and make things my own and be creative. After the accident, it was kind of like starting from scratch again. There was this second wave of being like, “Okay Ravi, this is what your life is going to look like, and this is what we should plan for.” I wasn’t happy with it, because that’s not me. I wrestled and swam in high school with spina bifida and arthrogryposis. Now, I’m a competitive powerlifter! And even before I got into powerlifting, I told my parents and my doctors that I wanted to be smart about it to try to maximize longevity while pursuing this hobby. I also know where I want to go with my life, so I wanted to do powerlifting. I had ORIF surgery to my right arm, which was completely shattered in the accident, so they were like, “Ravi, you really want to bench press this amount of weight right now?” (laughs) They must have thought I was nuts! But in 2017, I set two world records in my weight class and federation, and I’m benching over 300 pounds – and I only weigh about 130 pounds. It’s going really well, and I have bigger dreams with powerlifting so who knows where that will take me.
To answer your question, my idea of defying convention is choosing to do what I want to do, despite the cards I’ve been dealt. Sometimes going against the grain is what it takes to do it. There aren’t very many people who are essentially paraplegics working in physical therapy, and so there’s a lot of adaptation that needs to be done. I have to work with my professors to bring my own creativity and defy convention into this field to close the gap between what is required of me and what I can do.
What inspired you to go into physical therapy?
I was in physical therapy my entire life. I was with CCS, if you’re familiar with that. It’s a government program in California that basically provides all the care necessary, like physical therapy, all free of charge: orthopedics, surgeon care, surgeries for specific disabilities, mainly arthrogryposis, spina bifida, and cerebral palsy, among others. I was there pretty much from birth to age 21, when I aged out of the program. I did physical therapy from the day I was born until age 21. The thing is, I never thought about it being my profession.
In high school, I actually wanted to be an attorney. When I was in seventh grade, my dad was kidnapped, carjacked, and shot by some people trying to get initiated into a gang. That pushed me into wanting to go into law, and prosecuting people who have done horrible things. But then my accident happened, and I was a little bit unhappy with what I was being prescribed. I struggled with a lot of the prescription drugs: sleeping medication, the heavy anxiety meds, and obviously the pain meds. I took prescription pain medication for almost three years. It was very difficult to get into life in the real world, taking X amount of pills and going to lectures. It was because of my experiences with prescription medication that the majority of my undergrad experience, I was set on pharmacy, and I really wanted to give my little bit of experience to helping patients manage their medication. But towards the end of my undergrad, I began to shadow pharmacists and work in the field, and I felt like I wouldn’t have been very happy doing that. And so, being a competitive powerlifter and adapting to things my whole life, always trying to push what I have to in order to close the gap, I thought about physical therapy. I actually went back to the same CCS clinic that I graduated from two years earlier, and I loved it! I loved working with the kids, and they referred me out to a sports ortho place, and then had a few other positions as an aide, and that just kind of solidified things for me.
What is your passion in life?
I love pushing boundaries and pushing myself. I also apply that to helping people, and making them feel like their struggles and concerns are valid. I try to empathize and understand where someone is coming from, and why they’re feeling this way. I try to apply this all together with physical therapy; pushing myself to do something that I might find very challenging. I could work at a desk, and that would be a different kind of challenge on its own, but in this sense, working in physical therapy is a very big challenge for me, considering my physical disability. Giving back to the community and helping people who are, in many ways, very similar to myself is important to me. One of my doctors, who had followed me through CCS for 21 years, said to me, “you survived for a reason; now you just have to find out that reason”. Helping others and relating to them is very important to me, while also putting my own spin on things and challenging myself along the way – that’s my passion.
How do you stay motivated?
The two big things in my life right now are school and training. I try to remind myself why I’m doing what I’m doing on a regular basis. If school’s getting tough or kicking my butt, I try to tell myself that I’ve survived way worse, and to not forget where I came from. And then I also remind myself that I’m doing this for all the people that I might come into contact with, or have the pleasure of treating. On some level, they were in the same, or similar, situation to what I was going through. My orthopedic surgeon actually had polio, so we really bonded over that, and I want to emulate that and provide that for somebody else.
When it comes to training, it’s a similar thing. I remind myself, “Ravi, there was a time when you couldn’t even feed yourself, and now you’re benching 300 pounds. You’ve come this far, let’s keep pushing it”. I really understand the value of strength and physical ability. When I lost it all, it was such a crushing experience because all these things made me very happy. I was very active as an athlete, and put a lot of effort into being active, and then I lost it all. I love improving, and I remind myself of that when I’m going through a low in my training program or something. I say to myself “Ravi, you appreciate this so much, and yes, it’s a hard time, but you’re strong enough to get through this.”
Tell us about a recent achievement that you’re proud of accomplishing.
I’ve always been really into hiking and exploring. I had basic forearm crutches, and on regular gravel and stuff like that, it never really posed an issue. Back in December, I tried to do a hike by Stevens Pass, and there was about five or six feet of snow. I tried to do it with the normal crutches and crutch attachments, but every time I tried to take a step, I’d just sink it. I did my best for a good three or four hours, but I couldn’t really do it. My ego was a little bit hurt when we had to head back, and I was like, “I want to conquer this!”. I told myself that I’d figure out a way to come back and complete the hike, one way or another. I looked around and saw that SideStix had very unique attachments in the sense that they added a lot more surface area to the crutch itself, and I really liked that, so I bought them. I actually lost about 11 pounds for the sake of making the hike a little bit easier on my legs, and we came back at the end of March and completed the whole thing! We even went a little above and beyond the actual trail. It was great, and I was really happy with how it went. The extra surface area provided me with a lot more support and confidence in the snow. It happened to be 20 feet of snow during that time, so they really came in handy!
My housemates were also really helpful. They packed in some of the snow for me, leading in front, and it was really helpful. If I fell, they were there to help me up. Without them, it wouldn’t have been possible, because it was about three and a half miles, and that’s right around my maximum ability. I wanted to push beyond it. Along with the crutches being really supportive, my friends were just as supportive. I love pushing boundaries and looking at something to figure out how to adapt and overcome along the way to make it happen.
What do you do when you feel overwhelmed?
I have struggled with that in the past, with the PTSD and anxiety from the accident that manifested afterwards. I think in general, I understand myself so much better, more than I did during undergrad. I know these proper coping mechanisms, and when to nip things in the bud. Yesterday, I went on a little walk after the gym, and I just wanted to clear my mind because I have a midterm coming up. I just wanted to get clear and now let the anxiety set in. The original plan was to go on this little hiking trail in the area behind my apartment, but I just kept seeing cooler and cooler stuff, so I just kept going. It ended up being a two mile trek, when I was originally planning for it to be a 15 or 20 minute walk; I was out for two hours! What I do to manage stress and challenging things is stay active. When I’m stressed, working out is the best medicine I could have ever asked for. I go on walks a lot more, just to kind of clear my mind and see something new.
If you could get a tattoo of any one word, what would it be?
I do have a tattoo, but it’s a picture of a lion. It actually has a bit of significance with my accident. I have a plate with 10 pins in my head, and a skin graft on my face to close an open skull fracture on my right side. I put that into the tattoo, so the lion has a scar and one blind eye on its right side. My jaw was fractured along with some of my facial bones, so there’s some scars on the lion to symbolize that.
I’m Punjabi, and we have this term that means “young lion”, like “don’t worry”. That was a saying that we would always use: “don’t worry, you’re a young lion and we’ll get through this”. In the hospital, I would have maybe three or four surgeries in a day, so when I came out of the coma, I told my parents that when this was all over, I was going to get a tattoo. They weren’t going to say no to me, you know? (laughs) They were like, “yeah, we’ll worry about that later”! I kept talking about that, and then six years later, I said to them, “hey Mom and Dad, remember when I said I was going to get a tattoo? I got it!”. It was kind of symbolic of my experience in the hospital.
What’s your favourite thing about SideStix?
The snowshoe attachments, hands down. They were able to provide me with a sort of experience that I couldn’t find anywhere else. They have a very interesting design, and that’s really cool. You also have the sand shoe attachments, which I haven’t gotten yet, but I think the whole idea of snowshoe attachments is really cool. They’re very unique!
What advice would you give somebody with a mobility challenge, or someone who is new to mobility challenges?
This is something very new to myself with being in a physical therapy program, but we don’t always have the answers. That was something my professor said to me last week. She said, “Ravi, you’re not going to have all the answers off the bat”, and that was a very big shock for me! This is something I’ve been wrestling with for a while, and I think this is a great opportunity to talk about it. I would tell somebody who is new to a mobility issue that you won’t have all the answers off the bat all the time. What I think is really important is to take a step back, reorganize, regroup, and think about how you would go back and tackle that situation. That’s what I did when I wasn’t able to complete that hike back in December: figuring out where things might go wrong, and what to plan for. I think once you start to get into that mindset, you’ll be able to do this much faster. You might not have the answer in that moment, but you can take a five second break and be like, “okay, let’s do this”, and then tackle the situation. I think just knowing that you won’t know everything right off the bat is important, as well as getting into the framework of taking a breather, stepping back, regrouping, and then going back into it with a new plan.
What’s the best thing you’ve learned about living with a mobility challenge?
I would say being creative. There’s going to be a million different challenges that get thrown at me every day. The world is not always the most accessible place, and I think sometimes, though we fight for change, there will always be challenging situations. I remember one time shortly after my accident when I was doing a hike. At the time, I was wearing two KAFOs; right now I wear one KAFO (knee-ankle-foot orthosis) and one AFO (ankle-foot orthosis), but for a while I was wearing two KAFOs. I was trying to do this hike, and because I’d done it before, I had this preconceived idea that I knew where all the rocks were and what route I needed to take. But with two KAFOs, I was less flexible, less mobile. I still wanted to climb this mountain, one way or another, so I had to figure out how I was going to do it. That’s just one example, but there’s always something new. You have to be creative, and look at something and say, “how can I tackle this? Can I do this differently than I otherwise would have thought?” I think that has gotten me where I am today.
For crutch users specifically, I think it’s really important to think of your crutches as something really cool. I struggled with this as a kid. Growing up, I didn’t like the wheelchairs or crutches because they made me different from everybody else, and I felt like I was confined to this mobility device, or stuck with these. But I think if you own it, you can turn them into an extension of you. I’ve had my braces a certain colour, and my wheelchair a certain colour. When I go to a wedding, they’re essentially an accessory piece, like a watch. I think it’s really important to figure out your style and what suits your personality, and build on that. These mobility devices are essentially an extension of ourselves, so why not tailor them in a way that highlights your personality? If you like green watches, maybe you get a green pair of crutches. They can be a fashion statement. They can be so much more than just crutches that you need for walking. They obviously provide you with so much more, like the ability to hike and explore things. It’s important to understand that they can be so much more than just mobility devices.