Post courtesy of Metro.co.uk
Date Of Injury: February 1990
Tulsi Vagjiani was 10 years old when her family were killed in a plane crash as they flew home to the UK from India on 14 February 1990. Tulsi, who lost both of her parents and her brother in the crash, was left fighting for her life after being helped to safety by a fellow passenger who also survived the impact.
To this day, Tulsi, now 36, can only recall fragments of the disaster, though she says in an interview with metro.co.uk that she remembers ‘snippets’ of conversations from the time. One conversation was with her grandmother, who she had left behind in London to travel with her family to India. ‘She was telling me what had happened and how I had lost my family,’ she says. ‘But I remember being more confused as to why I could hear her voice so closely.’ Tulsi also recalls a conversation with the gentleman who rescued her from the plane and one with her aunt, the sister to her mother. ‘I could hear her crying and telling me about the accident,’ she says.
Tulsi, who sustained 45 per cent burns to her face and body in the crash, she says she feels ‘confused’ by the experience. Her more vivid memories do not kick in until a month later, when she says she saw her face for the first time. ‘It’s all confusing,’ she says now. ‘The next memory I have is me looking in the mirror after a month or so…. and that was awful. ‘It was like I was looking at someone else.’
The burns Tulsi suffered changed her face dramatically and she needed continual skin graft treatments for five years after the crash. Alongside this, Tulsi’s mental health was also suffering majorly. ‘I was having 50 to 60 bad episodes a year. I had no confidence. I kept looking at others and thinking ‘I wish I could look like that.’ ‘I wish I could do that.”
Not only was she bullied at school because of her burns, but she was also in and out of hospital throughout her school years, making it impossible to live a ‘normal’ existence. In 1995, the intensity of her treatment slowed down slightly – but the effect it had on her life was already felt. Her confidence, she says, was badly affected and she found it hard to get a job. ‘I struggled to feel good about myself or have any self worth,’ she says.
Although Tusli’s confidence was suffering, she was determined that it was her destiny to make a difference. Tulsi dreamed of opening a burns camp – a place for other burns victims to enjoy outside activities – in Essex. She decided to trial one for herself and so took the opportunity to fly over to America to do so. The trip was a turning point for Tulsi. ‘I’d gone abseiling with the camp, and for some reason I was worried I looked stupid. Not because of my burns – but because of my harness,’ she said. ‘Other people had limbs missing and here I was worrying about how I looked in my equipment!’ Tulsi watched as others abseiled down the mountain, but she couldn’t bring herself do it. She says now that this particular experience is the one that changed her outlook forever. ‘I didn’t push myself like I should have,’ she says. ‘I think to myself, if they could do it, why couldn’t I? That experience definitely changed my outlook.’ From then on Tulsi vowed to push herself as much as she could. The more she did so, the more her confidence grew.
In 2006, Tulsi decided she would put aside her dream of running camp for a while, choosing instead to study for a psychology degree while working in a hotel. Unfortunately though, her health woes were not over. Tulsi, then 36, went to see her doctor with symptoms of high blood pressure – but discovered the reality was much worse. Her kidneys were failing. ‘I was in the midst of my degree when I got diagnosed with end stage renal failure,’ she says. ‘It was surreal as I’d never even heard of this but suddenly I was being told about dialysis and transplant – it all seemed so scary.’ Tulsi, whose kidney failure was unconnected to the plane crash, had to endure dialysis every night for three years before undergoing a kidney transplant. The transplant was a success, but she had issues with the medication which caused further health problems.
Tulsi was taking steroids as part of her transplant medication, while also being prescribed calcium. But the calcium was not being absorbed sufficiently and her bones became brittle. As a consequence, she broke her ankle. ‘I was constantly having to cancel my classes and book days off work,’ she says. ‘Some days I was unable to get out of bed because my immune system was so low.’ Tulsi was offered medication to help improve her immune system, but it was not effective enough and she frequently suffered infections. She says: ‘I had so many constant urine and kidney infections, it was like fighting a losing battle.’
During this time, Tulsi made the decision not to go ahead with her plans for a burns camp. She felt that although her experience had taught her a lot about herself, she needed a new focus. ‘I needed to move on with my life. It wasn’t right for me to open my own camp, I needed to put the crash behind me,’ she says. ‘I needed to see the accident and the burns as something that had happened to me and not let it control my life.’ With that, Tulsi decided to delve back into education, where she studied a second degree in applied health science.
Once completed, Tulsi began working for herself as a pilates teacher. She decided to follow up a career in pilates after having tried it as a method of release for some time. She says pilates increased her body confidence. It allowed her to do exercise that didn’t cause her any pain within her joints or burns. She feels she has a strong bond with her clients, and enjoys her job as her clients are extremely understanding when she needs to take time off due to illness.
Alongside this, with her health beginning to improve, Tulsi decided to get in touch with the Katie Piper Foundation. She had seen the charity on a documentary about Katie Piper in 2011 and wrote to the foundation to say what an inspirational woman she thought Katie was. Tulsi says: ‘She was so young and she had gone through so much. I understood her struggles, I just wanted to wish her well.’ She didn’t hear back from the foundation for a while and put it down to the volume of the emails they receive. But, in January 2012, Tulsi received an email from the foundation. She was thanked for getting in touch and offered a variety of treatment, including hair restoration, medical tattooing and laser treatment. Excited, Tulsi took them up on the opportunity to undergo hair restoration and medical tattooing, as she had always wanted eyebrows. Tulsi notes her hair restoration and eyebrow tattooing experience as the day her confidence finally started pushing through her insecurities. She says: ‘I finally had eyebrows, I finally saw my face. They defined my face. And then I had hair, and everything started to make sense.’
Later, she heard from them again. They informed her they were holding pampering events, so that a group of six people could have their make-up and hair done professionally. Katie was also there to offer hand massages to the group. Tulsi attended the event and the two became friends. ‘It was nice not to just talk about our burns for once,’ said Tulsi. ‘Katie had just been dealing with some anti-rejection medication, and we talked about that.’
Tulsi now continues to work with the foundation as a motivational speaker. She works with other burns victims and she represents the charity at various events, sharing her story with others who have also been affected by burns.
Her health is stable at the moment, she’s strong and able to maintain her classes since having her transplant. Tulsi feels her biggest achievement as of now is the fact she has finally accepted herself. She says to metro.co.uk: ‘I’ve finally accepted my scars. I love them, and I don’t want to hide them.’ ‘I can finally see my beauty shining through. I can finally see what others see.’