Fighting depression and disability: This Muzaffarabad doctor's story is one of resilience

Anam and her parents hope for a brighter future.
Published December 31, 2016

Turning 30 in May of next year, Anam Najam has spent almost nine years putting up a remarkable fight against her disability.

On the night of March 15, 2008 Najam's life would change. Having passed her second year MBBS exam in Ayub Medical College Abbottabad, she was homeward bound with her parents.

As their car descended ahead of Bhurban, on the way to Muzaffarabad, a group of masked men attempted to intercept them. Anticipating the danger her father, Najam Rashid, accelerated rather than slowing down. The dacoits opened fire at the vehicle, with one bullet hitting Najam’s mother in the arm and another piercing Najam’s spinal chord.

“Initially I thought it’s because of tiredness that I can’t even open the door, but gradually I realised that I was in deep water,” Najam says, recalling that fateful night.

There was a time when she had hoped her handicap would heal through treatments and she would be able to resume her previous life. But Muzaffarabad was still reeling from the devastating 2005 earthquake and hospitals lacked specialised treatment for quadriplegia.

Gauging the severity of the situation, Najam was rushed to Islamabad the following day where her painstaking treatment began in PIMS, putting her studies on hold till September.

Seven months later, Najam decided to take charge of her destiny and overcome the hurdles. Putting aside her depression, a result of her dependence on her family for menial tasks, she resolved to resume her education.

Najam's mother assists her up the ramp
Najam's mother assists her up the ramp

A fearless mother-daughter duo

After approval from the medical college board, Najam was able to continue where she left off, with the assistance of her mother who became her full-time attendant.

She would take her daughter to the classroom and back to the hostel, while also taking care of her basic needs.

“It was the support of my parents, physiotherapists, teachers, classmates and college administration that helped me with my studies,” she says.

Throughout her academic career, Najam had been a bright student. She was among the first 20 position holders in her SSC exam and clinched fifth position in the HSSC exam, under the AJK Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education.

Fears of a decline in her academic excellence were unfounded as she continued to shine after her recent handicap.

During her last two exams in medical college, her answer sheets were filled in by a junior student chosen by the faculty. She maintained her record of first division, despite this being the only facility provided to her.

Challenges and perseverance

During this trying period of physiotherapy and academics, her family continued to investigate various treatments which could help Najam stand on her own two feet.

They came to know of a German healthcare facility offering treatment for her disability. After weeks of correspondence, the hospital shared their details for Najam's treatment. The total duration of treatment, including arrival and departure, would be eight days and would cost 7,545 Euros, however all this would be conditional to grant of visa.

The family hopes for a brighter future
The family hopes for a brighter future

In April 2009, Najam’s Saudi Arabia based uncle deposited the treatment fee. Her father, who is an employee of the AJK Electricity Department, sold a piece of his land for Rs 2.2 million. Coupled with estimates of the worth of his remaining property, Rashid was able to collect enough funds for visas for his daughter and two attendants. Najam’s mother and elder sibling, a Pakistan army captain at the time, were hoping to make the trip.

Najam's father also got a grant of Rs 1.6 million from the AJK government, which would cover the cost of treatment, including return airfare, local travelling and accommodation.

With funds and logistics sorted they encountered one last obstacle. The German embassy refused to grant visas to the family.

“In your country [Pakistan] facilities for disabled [persons] are poor. So we doubt you will return from Germany,” cited the German embassy as reason visa rejection.

“We don’t have a source to find out who will afford additional expenditures, if any, in Germany. As you have not given any proof of your financial status, it is another reason for visa denial,” it added

Gravely disappointed, Najam wrote a letter to the ambassador, asking what led them to believe a medical student and an army officer would quit their promising careers in Pakistan to stay back in Germany.

“I have been pursing my studies in the most adverse conditions and now when I am in the final year why would I quit to stay in any foreign country, however developed it may be,” she reiterated.

“I am alive in the hope of getting back to a normal life and I appeal in the name of humanity to let me avail myself of the treatment facilities which unfortunately are not available in Pakistan.”

Najam's father was ready to accrue even more funds, as a deposit to the German embassy, to assure them of their eventual return.

“For me nothing is more important than the recovery of my daughter. They should feel the pain of a father, a mother and the victim herself.”

Najam and her father
Najam and her father

Visas were eventually granted to Najam and her parents in October of 2010. They subsequently traveled to Cologne, where they would stay for three weeks, the duration of her stem cell therapy. However, according to Najam, this treatment would fail to give her any relief.

In April of this year, she did her MCPS in psychiatry, given the limited choice of specialties for physically challenged persons.

Najam is now a consultant psychiatrist in Shaikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahayan Hospital in Muzaffarabad. Her family still drops her off at work and picks her up when she is done. After a long and arduous journey Najam is continuing to defy odds.

A version of this article appeared in Dawn in April 2010.