By Asjad Nazir
TODAY Tulsi Vagjiani uplifts all those she encounters on a daily basis and has become a strong role model for those who are battling against the odds. The inspirational 37-year-old is also changing mindsets, making people think and helping to create a fairer society for those with disfigurements.
The multi-talented Londoner works as a Pilates rehabilitation specialist, life coach and motivational speaker, along with volunteering for charities The Katie Piper Foundation and Changing Faces. The road that has led her towards such a fulfilling life has been painful, emotional and filled with unimaginable challenges.
The difficult journey that changed the course of her life started on February 14 1990 when, as an innocent 10-year-old girl, she was caught up in a horrific plane crash in Bangalore, India. Tulsi lost both parents and her only brother and had 45 per cent burns on her body, changing the world she knew forever.
“When people call events life changing, I didn’t quite realise just how much. The only recollection I have is hearing my grandmother’s voice, which felt confusing as it is was much closer than a phone call.
“She explained what had happened and why she was in India, but nothing was registering. I could hear a doctor’s voice, but it wasn’t very clear.
“My next recollection was talking to my family in the UK and again feeling scared and confused as to why I could hear them so close to me. I remember them all telling me what had happened and why my parents weren’t returning, but nothing felt real,” said Tulsi.
Softly spoken, she has a calmness in her voice and hasn’t blocked out the various chapters in her life, recalling each episode in vivid detail. A certain inner strength comes across when she speaks.
She recalls how the extended family looked after her in the immediate aftermath of the plane crash. The physically, psychologically and emotionally injured 10-year-old felt comforted by the friendly voices she was unable to see. Six weeks after the accident, Tulsi had the bandages removed from her eyes and asked the nurse if she could see herself in the mirror.
“In my head nothing had changed so what was the big deal? I didn’t know what burns looked like as I never had any experience with them. But the person staring back wasn’t me. I thought someone had drawn a face in the mirror. Who was that person? It then dawned on me that this is me. I still felt like the person I was before I went to India. The accident finally started making sense, but I still held it in my heart that my parents were coming back me,” said Tulsi.
The brave little girl learned to accept her parents weren’t coming back and was finally discharged from hospital. At school classmates no longer recognised her, but treated her well despite finding what was going on difficult. She started high school that same year and made great friends who still connect to her today.
“They accepted me for who I am and ensured I was involved in all activities. I often missed a lot of lessons due to surgery, physio and outpatient appointments that I struggled to catch up.
“I experienced bullying outside of my normal settings like the journey to and from school or on public transport while travelling to my appointments. It was very isolating and something I couldn’t understand because I was just being me going through my own struggles.”
In 1995 Tulsi had the opportunity to attend a burns camp in West Virginia, USA and finally started getting her confidence back. She made new friends and realised she wasn’t alone because everyone attending also had burns.
“One young boy really made me reevaluate how I looked at myself and my scars. He was climbing rocks and abseiling with one lower limb missing. He did it with confidence and ease, yet I was more concerned how the harness looked on me or if others would laugh at me because I had never done anything like this before.
“It’s from this point I decided I wasn’t going to allow my burns to limit me from any physical activities/sports. I needed to try things and not limit myself. This gave me the courage to not give up, but try and face things head on including my accident and painful losses.”
The determined young lady took that newfound confidence into adulthood and went down a varied career path that took her from hotel and tourism to health and social care. In the hotel industry she would dishearteningly only get jobs in the back office or as a room attendant.
She recalls: “For one of my interviews for a reception post I was told my face wouldn’t fit their company and it’s best if I stick to the cleaning room. This left me feeling very low and isolated. My career changed direction and I became a carer for the elderly and enjoyed this, but there wasn’t a lot of work.”
The next turning point came when as a 22 year-old she started a journey of self-discovery with a counselling course. “The course was enlightening, but still having low self-worth and esteem and no confidence meant I was not ready to take it up as a career yet,” she said.
Then in 2004 Tulsi was ready for a career helping others. She did a degree in pilates and therapeutic massage, but got diagnosed with end stage renal failure.
“My world came crumbling down because I thought I was going to die. I didn’t want to die having not completed my degree. My consultant was great and explained there were options to help ease pressure off my kidneys from dialysis to getting a transplant. I didn’t realise just how important the kidney function was until that moment where now I was actually fighting to survive, fighting to live.”
The function of her kidneys deteriorated within four months of being diagnosed, but Tulsi was determined to overcome the latest challenge life had thrown at her.
She was attached to a dialysis machine every night, which she would do after having set up her laptop and textbooks. She powered through, studied hard and passed her degree with a 2:1.
Despite the triumph with the degree Tulsi felt out of control and out of her depth. Just when she thought there was no hope a phone call arrived.
“Two months after graduating I received a phone call that a kidney donor was available. I wasn’t prepared for this as I was in the middle of renovating my house. I had meetings with my builder and architect. I didn’t have time for a medical procedure. The consultant said it’s a case of taking it or being on a list for a lot longer as a near perfect match doesn’t come by often.”
But Tulsi felt so ill at this point she felt like having it wasn’t the right decision for her and this left the surgeons baffled. She overcame the mental trauma and had a successful kidney transplant. “Eventually I was on the correct medication and after 10 months my body began to feel stronger.”
She suffered with an infection for almost six years, but the kidney function was stable. However in 2011 Tulsi broke her ankle because her bones were quite weak and during the rehabilitation period she met The Katie Piper Foundation.
“I felt so connected to Katie Piper after watching her documentary. After I met Katie and the charity manager I was uplifted and suddenly felt I had a purpose in life and it’s from this moment my confidence began to truly grow. I felt accepted and that life was more than just my scars. I had so much to offer and I started to challenge my own fears and live with the view of not limiting myself.”
During this time Tulsi also started a journey of self-love and began to understand her purpose of using everything she had been through to motivate and inspire others to gain self-confidence and empowerment.
Today as a motivational speaker she enjoys working with young children and women to empower them to make better choices for themselves through their journey of self-confidence.
She gained two awards for the recognition of her work with women and empowerment. As a rehabilitation Pilates specialist she has worked with a range of clients from primary school children to senior carers as well as pregnant women and fitness enthusiasts.
“I am currently a media champion for Changing Faces, promoting and creating awareness of Face Equality Day, which happens annually on May 26. The campaign is very close to my heart.
“Every day people stare at me. It’s getting people to be aware of how that makes someone with disfigurement feel. Having a disfigurement means never having a day off. I don’t get to take my scars off and forget about them. Every day when I leave my house I need to check in with myself to see how I am going to handle staring or comments people make. We need to get more awareness and have equality along a whole spectrum of things.”
TULSI’S top tips ondealing with disfigurement
Accept your scars/burns as a part of you.
Learn to love yourself and fundamentally be kind
to yourself because stigma and judgments from others
can make this difficult.
Accepting this life-changing event is a monumental direction
into focusing on yourself and aiming to move on from the
Reach out to support groups or charities who have resources to
help. It’s useful to be around non-judgmental people who can uplift
you and help with your confidence
People will stare and often and it will not be a pleasant experience,
but learn to ignore them and not empower their way of thinking. We
all face battles, but not everyone wears their scars on their face.
Learning to be grounded and more confident will help y