Sat, Apr 29, 2006 - Page 9 News List

'Reckless' paraplegic helps quake survivors

After being paralyzed at 15, Sarmad Tariq surmounted tremendous obstacles, including the devastating Quetta earthquake and the New York Marathon, to make Pakistan a better place for the disabled

AFP , ISLAMABAD

"I was a vegetable," he said. "My mum used to come and put her hand in front of my nose to check if I was breathing. That is when I realized that I was not going to walk again," said Tariq, who did not suffer any brain damage in the accident.

He endured two years of grueling medical treatment in Pakistani hospitals. His doctors drilled into his head and clamped on more than 13kg of weights to bring his neck into position. He had multiple operations, developed pressure sores, bladder infections and his weight plummeted.

Fearing for his health, his parents raised the money to send him to the renowned Stoke Mandeville Hospital in the UK.

He got a wheelchair for the first time and, crucially, received treatment that restored some strength to his shoulders and gave him partial movement in his hands.

Friends said his life would be easier in the UK, but Tariq returned to Pakistan after four months determined to rebuild his shattered life.

"I had been a burden on my parents financially and emotionally, so I decided to make myself financially independent. That thought kept me going," he said.

Six Pakistani colleges in a row rejected him because they said they didn't cater for the disabled, but eventually he was accepted by one in Rawalpindi. He later graduated from university with a Masters in Business Administration.

He also learned to drive a specially adapted automatic car, then got a job with a software firm by the age of 23, and soon afterwards he married Zehra, his childhood neighbor when they lived in the southwestern city of Quetta.

"We fell in love after the accident," Tariq said, adding that his wife had no reservations about coping with his disability and his daily needs, which include attaching a urine bag.

"But two years down the road, life started getting boring," Tariq recalled. "One day in 2002 I just left my job. I couldn't find any purpose. At first it was just to get out of bed; then to get a job; then to get married. Since I had done it all I missed the spark."

The couple went on holiday to South Africa to give him time for reflection, and he decided he wanted to "pave the way for other people who are wheelchair bound." That "way" involved extreme endurance tests that horrified doctors.

First Tariq drove himself and two friends from the Khyber Pass on Pakistan's northwest frontier with Afghanistan to the southern city of Karachi, a distance of 1,850km, along some of the world's most deadly roads.

The journey in March 2004, in his modified Honda Civic, took him 33 hours.

"Being in a car is one of the only places I am totally independent, except getting in and out," he said.

Tariq took nearly a year to prepare for his next and far more serious challenge in January last year -- the Lahore Marathon, Pakistan's first ever international marathon.

The race took him seven and a half exhausting hours to complete.

`I started spitting blood'

"On the 30th kilometer I started spitting blood. When I reached the Qaddafi Stadium there were just my family and friends, all the race officials had gone home and there was no one to record my time," he said.

Despite the physical effects he then decided to take part in the New York Marathon in Nov. 6 last year.

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