One meeting, one person, or one conversation has the power to transform you. If it is with Preethi Srinivasan, then it will definitely change your perspective on life. Preethi has persevered through all of life’s hardships, forging a means to assist others while she too was in great need of assistance.

The 42-year-old is not a normal person. Raised on three continents and born in Chennai, the world truly was her oyster. The swimmer competing at the national level began to swim at three years old. 

She also began playing cricket at the age of four, motivated by Sir Vivian Richards, just after the 1983 World Cup. She captained the under-19 state squad while she was just eight years old and playing for the Tamil Nadu state team.

She believed that everything was going according to plan as she was focused on making the national squad and excelling academically.

She says, “Not even the hint of failure has affected my life.”

Life Altering Event: The Accident 

But when she was eighteen, everything changed in an instant. She was having fun on a beach in Pondicherry with her friends when she took an unexpected tumble while playing in the ocean. She had a spinal cord injury that left her without feeling beneath her neck. 

She rose like a phoenix thanks to her parents’ constant love and support as well as her extraordinary fortitude, and she now gives hundreds of individuals with spinal cord injuries wings through her charitable trust, “Soulfree.”

Founding of Soulfree INSPIRE

Since its establishment in 2013, Soulfree INSPIRE (Integrated Spinal Rehabilitation Centre) has offered individuals with spinal cord injuries free holistic therapy, rehabilitation, medical care, education, counselling, and career opportunities. So far, more than 200 individuals with severe disabilities have benefited from the 20,000 square foot facility in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, by helping them live dignified lives.

Swimming against the current

Following the incident, Preethi experienced shock and went through a very trying period. Being confined to a wheelchair destroyed her spirit, since she had excelled in every aspect of her life.

“My heart was completely shattered. For the first eighteen years of my life, I led a fortunate life. I played cricket with legends, was in the top 2 percent of American students, had an abundance of affection at home, and was physically and beautifully fit. Preethi says, “I was on my path to achievement when the accident left me in total shock.

She continues by saying that she was unable to move her little finger at all, yet being able to throw the ball with all of her might.

“After being exceptional in every aspect, I found myself unable to even take care of myself and eat.” I was unable to even roll out of bed. It truly broke me,” she continues.

Throughout the entire incident, her parents were like rocks supporting her. To better care for her, her father left his job and they relocated to the spiritual town of Tiruvannamalai, which is home to several temples.

Preethi then attempted to enrol in a correspondence program for a Bachelor of Science in Psychology, but was turned down because the colleges did not accommodate impaired students and the program included practical classes. Ramps and elevators were absent.

She recalled being questioned, “Why do people come to study who are like you?” Her father, who was always her strongest supporter, encouraged her to pursue education, whether it meant a degree or not, and bought her study materials. He would read aloud to her from a variety of literature, including fiction, self-help, and spiritual works. He held onto her hand throughout their fights and supported her in getting over her suffering.

She had begun to piece her life together when she was struck by another powerful wave. Four days after her father’s 2007 heart attack death, her mother also suffered a heart attack and required bypass surgery.

My world was shattered once more. I had to look after my 80-year-old grandmother. For the surgery, we had to travel to Chennai. We didn’t know who would even help me get into my wheelchair or how we were going to handle the next meal. Life became hard again when I had to start making money,” admits Preethi.

Her friends now emphasised to her how important it was that she have an official degree. She enrolled in the BSc Medical Sociology program because there were no practical tests. Despite her desire to study counselling psychology, she also completed an MSc in psychology.

Since I only have my voice, I wanted to give advice to others. I had to settle for psychology after my admittance was denied,” she recalls.

“We ought to live with dignity as well.”

Two deaths that rocked her to her core occurred during this time, as she struggled to get her mother treated and educated.

“I know two paraplegic girls whose families appeared to have poisoned them with flies, and they didn’t want to take care of them. It made me question why there isn’t a facility in India where someone who is quadriplegic or paraplegic can live with dignity, despite the country having one of the greatest populations. When my mother fell ill, no one was there to look after me,” she continues.

When she began her investigation, she discovered that there weren’t many facilities that provided treatment for patients with spinal cord injuries or long-term rehabilitation programs. She was subsequently encouraged by her mother to establish this sanctuary, which offers severely disabled individuals a life of dignity.

I laughed at the concept at first as I had no idea how to manage or raise money for a non-profit organisation. However, the passing of these females awakened me. I contribute to the issue if all I do is hesitate to take action out of fear. I am the only one who can truly understand this because I have lived it. Since we are so utterly invisible in society, I made the decision to speak up and take whatever action I could to improve this group of people,” she continues.

Finding strength in struggle

That’s why she founded Soulfree Inspire. Arriving with a caretaker, individuals stay at the centre for almost half a year. Preethi refers to the training they receive as “re-engineering,” in which they obtain both physical and psychological rehabilitation.

“We give them back the will to live. Our goal is to reestablish self-sufficiency from a socioeconomic, psychological, and physiological standpoint. It’s critical that they return home and find employment. We are providing free care that meets international standards. We offer computer classes, sports, counselling, training sessions, occupational therapy, hydrotherapy, physiotherapy, and tailoring, among other services. Preethi continues, “It’s a holistic methodology derived from an experiential framework.

Additionally, Soulfree provides education and awareness campaigns on spinal cord injuries. They provide a support system for people with severe disabilities through educational and career possibilities, with a special focus on women. In addition, they offer individuals in need wheelchairs and medical attention. Conference calls are another thing they do to keep everyone’s spirits high.

Three years ago, Karthikeyan (age 25) suffered a fall from a tree and became bedridden. He was able to walk with a stick after attending Soulfree for six months.

“Being confined to bed caused me to consider suicide. I have some bedsores as well. In a wheelchair, of course. I can now do my daily tasks and walk with a stick. I have also learned how to use computers and tailoring, which I will use to make ends meet when I return home,” Karthikeyan adds.

In order to incorporate rehabilitation within the government insurance program, Preethi is also collaborating with the Tamil Nadu government. She is on the advisory board for Tamil Nadu’s “Welfare of the Differently-Abled.”

After suffering a spinal cord injury, the majority of people return home unsure of what to do. According to her, the government needs to focus on giving our impairment the appropriate attention it deserves and on creating jobs for those who are similar to us.

What gave her the willpower to accomplish so much while she was up against so many obstacles every day? 

“I learned that life would have been too simple for me otherwise, and that instead of feeling sorry for myself, I should attempt to take advantage of the chance presented by the difficulty. You face unique obstacles when you possess unique powers. It’s not a huge issue if you succeed when things go your way. A win arises when one must box while having one’s hands tied behind one’s back in order to save the planet, the woman grinned.

She still experiences bad days, but when she does, she calls her Soulfree pals and they reassure her that things will get better. Thus far, Soulfree has assisted more than 2,500 people.

“These are unseen lives, and when we pass away, the world discards us with such ease. No one deserves to die, in my opinion, and every human life has value regardless of ability or impairment. “I want to make sure that nobody passes away from bed sores or from their family’s compulsive behaviours,” she continues.

After Preethi’s world closed behind her, she made the decision to bring about chances and change. She is currently a PhD candidate at IIT Madras.