Balancing Act Part I

By: Julie Markarian

Foreword:

by Vasu Sojitra: 

This post was written by Julie Markarian for her class "Cross Cultural Perspectives on Grief". Julie was an Ameri-Corp member that helped us at Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports when I interned with them. She was one of the main influencers for me to stay in the field of Therapeutic Recreation and to follow my passions. She is now pursuing a passion of her own as a Child Life Specialist Graduate Student at Wheelock College by spreading joy to kids in need in the Boston area. Go Julie! I'm so glad you're able also to find your passion. Keep that smile big and that heart bigger!

Balancing Act:

Part I

The film “Out on a Limb” opens with music and voiceovers that play on as sponsor names are flashed before the audience’s eyes. Suddenly, we see a chairlift, a “bluebird” sky, and the helmet of a skier shredding powder underneath it all. Matt Albert shares his thoughts with us as the skier comes over the knoll and into full view. “His talent pretty much exceeds most any skier I’ve ever seen. It’s impressive. Vasu is probably the most talented athlete I’ve ever seen or worked with. I do forget that he has the one leg” (Out on a Limb, 2014). So begins an inspiring (and award-winning) 6-minute film about a guy who doesn’t buy into the label of having a “disability.” He is simply a guy who is hell bent on empowering others who doubt their own abilities by pursuing “impossibilities.” Vasu’s losses have altered his entire life’s course, but not because they define or limit him. These losses, and the adaptions he has had to make because of them, have led Vasu to achieve a career as a professional athlete, a passionate advocate, and to become a person who is truly present in all of the moments that create a remarkable life. Vasu’s ability to adapt to loss has also led to his resilient attitude, one that views loss as just another part of life. Vasu believes that we can’t choose the losses we experience, but we can change the way we react to them. His reactions have been nothing short of incredible. 

Vasu Sojitra’s parents moved to Connecticut from India in the mid-eighties, and soon gave birth to Amir and Vasu. Vasu, the younger of the two brothers, developed a blood infection known as “septicemia” when he was just nine months old. Vasu’s parents consulted with doctors at the local hospital, who informed them that in order to save his life and prevent the infection from spreading throughout his body, they would need to amputate his leg. Amir was only 2 years old at the time, so neither one of the boys remembers much about their family’s hospitalization, and Vasu’s parents have “never really described it because it was a traumatic time for them both.” Vasu’s loss of his leg is never something that he spends much time discussing, either; he prefers to focus on the “now” rather than lamenting over the past. “The past teaches us things, but I’d rather be in the moment and figure out what I want to do next.” He’ll answer people’s questions about his leg and how he lost it if asked, but within our own interview, Vasu preferred to discuss how he lives today with the abilities he does have. This mindset also rings true throughout our own friendship; Vasu focuses on the here and now, and plans for the next adventure with gusto. 

“people don’t really like different in any culture.” 

Vasu spent 6-months in the hospital after his leg amputation, where the medical team worked on getting his medications right, fitting his prosthetic leg, and teaching his parents about homecare. By the time he was discharged, Vasu’s parents decided to move back to India to be closer to their family. They later explained to their boys that they didn’t have any support in America, and the decision to move back to India was based on getting that additional help. Once again, the Sojitra family relocated, re-adjusted, and carried on. Vasu described this transition in the same way that he describes all of his life events: with refreshingly blunt honesty, never dwelling too much on the past. It happened, they adjusted, and life continued. Vasu’s earliest memories in India are simple ones; playing in the streets with his friends, building Legos with Amir, and going to school. Vasu mentioned the stares and direct comments that his classmates would often make about his physical appearance, but he explained that this is more of a universal occurrence than one specific to India; “people don’t really like different in any culture.” 

Vasu’s prosthetic leg required regular maintenance and re-fittings, which meant an expensive process of shipping it back to the states; this led to the family’s decision to move back to Connecticut when Vasu was in the second grade. Vasu experienced a whole different kind of loss with this move: the loss of home and of being in the cultural majority. Vasu described his classroom experience in the US as “kind of the same thing” as his experience in India, although “I was diverse and disabled, which was a double whammy. I had never experienced being around so many white people before.” There was always one person, however, who never treated Vasu any differently: his brother, Amir. “He was the first person who didn’t treat me as different. He treated me equally, and opened my mind to the possibilities of what I could do.” The boys were always very active, playing soccer together, and “beating the s*** out of each other” as only brothers can. Although a lot of fighting happened between the two brothers, Amir was always the first person to stand up for Vasu, and would even get into trouble doing so. “He was recklessly being nice,” Vasu adds. Amir also told Vasu to never accept pity from anyone, and that Vasu should always pick himself up when he fell down (literally and metaphorically), which pushed Vasu to be independent. This brotherly advocacy, which came through even before his parents’ encouragement of such physical independence, also helped Vasu pursue the active (and oftentimes, downright crazy) lifestyle that he enjoys to this day. Amir’s encouragements started fueling the fires of a resilient attitude that had already existed within Vasu, helping him find his way to his true passion.

"He treated me equally, and opened my mind to the possibilities of what I could do.”

Vasu’s prosthetic leg was “super uncomfortable because I don’t have much of a limb. I had to strap it to my waist and just lean on it.” Vasu described an incident when he was 10 years old where his prosthetic randomly “gave out,” causing him to slam his face onto a desk in the middle of class. His first thought was “Oh my god, BLOOD!” and his second was “SCREW this!” He was embarrassed, uncomfortable, and had hit his limit. True to form, he stopped using his prosthetic that day and hasn’t turned back since, relying instead on his crutches to get around. That same winter, Amir took Vasu skiing at a local mountain in Connecticut. There was another skier there that day that was also skiing with one leg, which was a huge motivator for Vasu. Skiing became an equalizer for Vasu; he found that he could not only keep up with his brother and his friends, he could ski faster than they could, and with time, better!

Vasu continued to pursue his love of skiing throughout high school and college, and after graduation, he became involved with the nonprofit Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports. “It’s amazing to see what adaptive sports can do for someone. When I first started and I watched a participant get so stoked on life, skiing down a green, it opened my eyes to how important it actually is for you. It’s amazing when you try to push other kids who have that potential; it’s very rewarding and fulfilling for them. It took me not getting paid at all to realize that this is one of the best experiences you can have in your entire life.” Vasu attributes his values surrounding “treating everyone equal” and “emphasizing with others” to his own experiences of inequality and of being labeled as “different.” He had found a meaning within the loss of his own abilities through the world of adaptive sports, regaining a sense of confidence while teaching others with various ability levels to trust in themselves and to celebrate their own awesome abilities. 

"I believe that we can make any choice that we want, we just can’t choose the consequence.”

Vasu didn’t choose to be adaptable; he adapted to the loss of his leg and the move from India to America because he had to, as a means of survival. He is resilient in the face of loss and adversity because he chooses to be. “I am a huge fan of not being complacent. It’s never going to happen, I’m way too motivated. I want to keep being active, and to push other people to do that. God didn’t choose this career for me. I wasn’t destined to be a pro athlete; I decided that I wanted to be better at it. I believe that we can make any choice that we want, we just can’t choose the consequence.” Vasu has chosen, time and time again, to face the uncertain hardships that life has handed him with an honest, unrelenting resilience. 

To Be Continued...