Mujtabaa Saloojee demonstrates rare courage

Cathie Roy/Associate Publisher / Staff writer
April 19, 2013 01:00 AM

On May 8 Mujtabaa Saloojee, a most amazing young man, will receive a 2013 BC Rehab Gert Vorsteher Memorial award for his determination to overcome a catastrophic injury that left him a quadriplegic.

On May 8, Mujtabaa Saloojee, a most amazing young man, will receive a 2013 BC Rehab Gert Vorsteher Memorial award for his determination to overcome a catastrophic injury that left him a quadriplegic.

Muj (as he's better known) was a newcomer to Canada from South Africa when a horrific accident happened last summer while he was out walking with friends.

After moving here and living in Canada for less than six months, tragedy struck, Muj recalled in an email interview. While walking through a hiking trail with friends in Gibsons, I blacked out, waking up to my friends standing around me and panicking. Not knowing what had happened I tried to stand up, or at least move, but I just lay there motionless. It felt as if my entire body was covered in hard cement.

What Muj didn't know was a limb from a dead tree had broken loose, crushing the teen.

Realizing the severity of the situation, I instructed my friends to call an ambulance and call my mum, and instructed my other friend to touch my arms and legs to see what I could feel, Muj shared of that day.

After the extent of Muj's injuries were assessed, he was flown by helicopter to Vancouver General Hospital. After surgery he was diagnosed as a C4-C5 complete quadriplegic. The teen was told he would never walk again, and if he were lucky, he would be able to control a powered wheelchair by himself. In the meantime Muj was on breathing support with a lot of time on his hands.

So I laid there for weeks, visualizing and trying to breathe, swallow and move by myself, he remembered.

About two weeks after the surgery, Muj convinced doctors to take him off the breathing apparatus, but later that evening, the effects of pneumonia necessitated the tubes going back in. After another surgical procedure to help him breathe, he was able to transition to the spinal cord unit. A couple of weeks later he was moved to the G.F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre.

Once there he learned how to direct his care and how to advocate for himself. Pamela McHugh, manager of projects and communications at G.F. Strong, said he began to mentor all people admitted to the spinal cord injury program. He became known for showing the ropes to newcomers.

He was also recognized for his determination to overcome his injury. One of the first things Muj did was quit almost all of his pain medication cold turkey, which alarmed the medical professionals. For the first three days, he was in terrible pain, but gradually the pain receded and he started his rehab.

I pushed myself with everything I did, from slide transfers in physiotherapy to secretly ordering a pizza to practise my swallowing before they would allow me solid foods, he said.

Muj also put himself on a strict diet of only organic, gluten-free and sugar-free foods, McHugh said.

Soon he was trying a manual wheelchair.

The first time in a manual wheelchair I did horribly but before I knew it, I could wheel around with ease and didn't even use an electric wheelchair any more, he shared.

From there, the young man went on to adaptive biking, swimming and wheelchair sports.

All his therapists attested that Muj never said, 'I can't' and tried any task or challenge presented by his rehab team, McHugh said in an email. His maturity and resilience are astounding. He has returned to [Gibsons] and continues to regain his independence by returning to high school and attempting to graduate on time.

The award recognizes individuals who have demonstrated incredible perseverance and determination in their journey to personal independence. Gert Vorsteher, for whom the award is named, was a Kamloops carpenter who was hurt in a workplace accident in 1962. He left a bequest for G.F. Strong to fund the annual award.

It's a fitting acknowledgement for an inspiring 18 year old who still plans on walking again and is doing everything in his power to make that happen.

I believe that if you do not try your hardest to achieve something you really want, you will never know if you are able to achieve it or not, Muj said.

Two fundraising events are scheduled for next weekend in support of Muj. On Saturday, April 27, Dance Works Academy will host Art in Motion at the Heritage Playhouse Theatre in Gibsons, with shows at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.

This annual show highlights the work of the academy's students, and this year will also raise funds for Muj in Motion, a group that is collecting donations to buy a specially equipped van for Muj.

A bottle drive supporting Muj in Motion, sponsored by Caps Off Bottle Depot and Gibsons Recycling, will be held at Gibsons Recycling the following day, April 28, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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