No Bridge Too Far

Hitesh Ramchandani's triumph over cerebral palsy is an inspiring story
“History has demonstrated that the most notable winners usually encountered heartbreaking obstacles before they triumphed. They won because they refused to be discouraged by our defeats.” B C Forbes’ observation resonates strongly with the story of Hitesh Ramchandani.

At only 22, this brave man’s life is an object lesson in how the human mind can triumph over matter. Despite daunting physical debilitation, Hitesh who has represented Singapore in para-Olympic meets, has demonstrated that resilience, determination, commitment, and a complete transformation are concepts that can be mastered and become a mantra for life.

Born on January 20, 1992, at the General Hospital (now Singapore General Hospital), the doctor attending to Hitesh’s mother told the Ramchandani family that he was a breech baby and would need to be delivered by caesarian section to avoid complications.

Ironically, the very same doctor went against his own advice, deciding instead to deliver the baby normally. This resulted in baby Hitesh being choked and denied oxygen to the brain for a life-threatening 1 minute and 24 seconds. He ended up in the intensive care unit for 21 weeks fighting bravely for his life.

While in intensive care, Hitesh’s parents were told that he would either die or spend his life mentally retarded. It was a blow that still haunts Hitesh’s father, Ganesh, a successful businessman in the coal trade. “If the doctor had delivered Hitesh via C-section, Hitesh would have been normal,” he says quietly, his understatement only hinting at the tsunami of problems the traumatized parents had to battle to ensure their first-born survived and could live as normally as possible. Poignantly, Ganesh Ramchandani recalls makiong a pilgrimage to Vaishno Devi in North India, to ask for blessings to save their son and make him whole even in the face of such dire news. Despite the enormity of the professional callousness displayed by the doctor in question, the Ramchandani parents stoicly refrain from condemning him. The most Hitesh’s soft-spoken father will allow is his dismay at the doctor’s unethical behaviour. “What really upset us the most was that after this entire problem, the doctor continued to be dishonest with us and continued to shirk responsibility,” says the 53-year-old Singaporean who holds a Masters in Finance through distance learning from the University of Leicester.

Hitesh’s mother Bina, a certified yoga teacher, adds, “Karma must have dealt with him but even that (karmic punishment) is something I do not wish upon him.” They believe, with astonishing generosity, that the doctor paid his dues (his licence was suspended for a while). Small built but radiating energy and warmth, Bina was instrumental in ensuring Hitesh grew up without a “handicapped’ mind-set. Although cerebral palsy generally renders a person wheelchair-bound, Hitesh refused, from a very young age, to accept any special handicapped privileges. From day one at Haig Boys School, he insisted on being treated like the other boys. During a school race when he was eight, he fell and his knees started bleeding. Undeterred, he got up and completed the race.

That can-do spirit has been his liet motif through life. Always determined to be better than the best, Hitesh started parasailing at the age of three and learnt how to ride a bike, like other children at seven – all thanks to his upbringing. “My parents never treated me like anything was wrong with me. I was brought up with a lot of positive affirmation,” says Hitesh. “If I made a mistake, I was encouraged to make more mistakes and improve from them. I never got any special treatment. If I fell, my parents wouldn’t rush to pick me up, they allowed me to learn to pick myself up.” That was what made all the difference.

The Ramchandanis didn’t believe in giving Hitesh a different upbringing from his sister Natasha. “I sometimes wish they had paid special attention to him! They paid us equal amounts of attention but I guess since I am younger they would get after me a little more, since I’m a girl. I was a little more pampered,” she laughs. For her, Hitesh was like any older brother, bullying and fighting with her but also protective.

This last was hardly something Hitesh received on the proverbial playground where playmates’ cruel barbs were a regular part of growing up on a heart-breakingly unequal playing field. Mercifully, the Ramchandanis’ exemplary parenting showed him he was made of sterner stuff.

Bina and her son are expert yoga practioners. They believe it has been instrumental in helping Hitesh overcome his disability. Indeed, Hitesh was the catalyst on their Yoga journey. “Hitesh is always teaching me. Both of my children are my gurus,” says Bina, who was married at 21 and moved to Singapore from Sujandwar in Jaipur, Rajasthan.

Adversity has bred a rare generosity in Hitesh. He used to donate all his earnings from football to the Cerebral Palsy Fund and now it goes to a fellow player on his team who is in financial straits. “Whatever I earn I give to him. I believe in good karma,’’ says Hitesh. He also has a ready ear for his friends who often tap him for personal advice. “I get positive energy from anyone I help. In that sense everyone is an inspiration for me.”

Hitesh stresses that cerebral palsy is a disorder that can be overcome with a lot of focus and hard work. He learnt to improve his cognition by training his brain. “Once you have trained your brain to the level that your language processing is better the new cells that you have grown from this training can take over the old, damaged cells,” says Hitesh, a living testimony to this triumph. It was a daunting process and Hitesh struggled mightily. He trained his weaker left arm, improved his stretching and flexibility with yoga and other exercises and slogged tirelessly on his speech. “Anything is possible, as long as you are determined enough to be consistent,” says the thoughtful young man who now gives motivational talks and dreams of opening his own fitness club and becoming a professional motivational speaker.

Hitesh who recently completed a diploma course at the Singapore Institute of Management (SIM) now plans to do a degree course in Sports Science. He has also represented Singapore in football in the Cerebral Palsy Olympics and is a keen boxer. While his indomitable spirit was inherited from and honed by his parents, his role model is closer
to his age – his cousin Vicky Vaswani, 25. “Vicky has been one of the biggest supports of my life. I look up to him. He was a commando in the army, plays in Singapore’s national football team and runs his own insurance company and does a lot of community service,” says Hitesh who is clearly modelled on the same redoubtable mould.

Here are some excerpts from a recent interview India Se had with him.
India Se: What stands out in your mind about your mother during your childhood?

Hitesh Ramchandani: My mother has done a lot for me. She’s always encouraging. When I was younger I had weak lungs so drinking a bottle of milk could be dangerous if you weren’t careful. She would spend hours with me sacrificing her sleep, just to make sure I was okay, day in and day out.

India Se: Were you advised to study in a mainstream school?

Hitesh Ramchandani: Yes. At first, the doctors and teachers recommended that I enter a school with a special curriculum but my father was against the idea. He felt that I would do okay in a mainstream school, or even better than the other children.

India Se: Did you find it difficult connecting with other children in school?
Hitesh Ramchandani: When I was younger my peers did not have the maturity to understand my condition so I used to get taunted. This got worse when I was a teenager because as a teenager you are more self-conscious. When my friends had girlfriends I would sometimes feel left out and wonder what was wrong with me. But I did have a good bunch of friends whom I connected well with. In life you have good friends and bad friends, but it was the latter that really drove me to be better.

(Additional reporting by Sarah Khan)

Maya Tsering

Maya Bhalla