1 July 2021

No challenge too great

In 2013, when Ahmad was 20, tragedy struck. ‘I started studying through Unisa and things were going great,’ he recalls. But around 12:00 on the afternoon of 11 April, his whole life changed inexplicably and irrevocably. ‘I suddenly, out of nowhere, felt something in my back, a strange type of pain in the middle of my spine. It almost felt like something was choking me.’

For Ahmad, a strong, sporty, healthy young man, this experience was extremely alarming. ‘I immediately knew this could be serious, but never imagined how bad it would get.’ Ahmad’s parents, with whom he was living at the time, insisted on taking him to the doctor. ‘I remember I was walking around the house to the car and suddenly my right side started feeling strange. My right hand’s fingers didn’t want to move.’

By the time they arrived at the doctor, Ahmad struggled to get out of the car. He struggled to manoeuvre his legs. ‘That is when I knew something was seriously wrong – when I realised I couldn’t even walk anymore. It was terrifying – from waking up totally fine in the morning to not being able to move in a matter of hours …’

The family doctor sent them straight to Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, where he got admitted. By that time, Ahmad was unable to move at all. He couldn’t even sit upright anymore. He remembers doctors were mystified and intrigued about what was going on. ‘They didn’t know. There was no sign of a stroke. They knew I wasn’t on any drugs.’

The next day, Ahmad was sent for an MRI which showed inflammation on his spine, and he was diagnosed with transverse myelitis.

Acute transverse myelitis (TM) is a rare, acquired neuro-immune spinal cord disorder that can present with the rapid onset of weakness, sensory alterations, and bowel or bladder dysfunction. According to the Mayo Clinic, transverse myelitis is an inflammation of both sides of one section of the spinal cord.[1] This neurological disorder often damages the insulating material covering nerve cell fibres (myelin). Transverse myelitis interrupts the messages that the spinal cord nerves send throughout the body. This can cause pain, muscle weakness and paralysis. The exact reason for transverse myelitis is not known, and sometimes there is no known cause. There can be many different causes of transverse myelitis, including infections and immune system disorders that attack the body’s tissues.

‘At the time, the doctor told me I probably wouldn’t be able to move or do anything for about nine months. I was in a state of shock and really disappointed. I couldn’t do anything for myself and had to have a catheter (which only got removed a few weeks after I started walking again and my bladder regained function). But I don’t know whether it was prayer, but I could miraculously start moving my right leg the next day,’ he remembers.

There is no treatment for transverse myelitis. Ahmad had to undergo physiotherapy in the hope that his body would recover. ‘I couldn’t walk at all at the time and they would often attach me to a treadmill so that the machine could make my legs move even though I couldn’t.’

Slowly but surely Ahmad regained the ability to move his right hand and leg. ‘Even though the doctors were very pessimistic about my recovery, I think I had the right mindset from the beginning. I just knew I had to recover.’ Ahmad feels he may not have recovered so quickly without the help and support of his family. However, even today, eight years later, he still has not regained full function in his right hand. ‘It can’t close fully, so I can’t make a fist. The rest of my body, thankfully, is almost completely back to normal.’

The moment Ahmad got discharged from the hospital, he deferred his Unisa modules to the second semester but continued studying. ‘Even though I still couldn’t walk or really use my hand, I would read through my auditing books to make sure I won’t fall off track. I even registered for two extra modules. I think I was more thinking “recovery” instead of accepting my situation – that I may be paralysed for life. I think maybe I thought “this is too bad to be true”. Mentally, I couldn’t accept it or allow for it to ruin my life,’ he smiles.

His positive thoughts eventually became his reality. Ahmad taught himself to use his left hand to support his right hand to write to enable him to continue his studies. ‘I now write with two hands, because without my left hand I wouldn’t be able to hold a pen.’ He wrote his October 2013 exam in this way and passed all seven second-year modules he enrolled for. He applied for extra time, but that in itself was a double-edged sword – he now had more time to write exams with two hands, but also had to sit for longer periods of time while experiencing excruciating back pain. Yet, not even this could hold the young man back from reaching his goals.

Persistence is a huge key to overcoming life’s trials and adversity. It is easy to let yourself think small because of fear of failure. But, to accomplish great things in life you have to give it your all, you have to be open to taking risks, embrace challenges and think big. That way, you will achieve more than you could ever have imagined.

Ahmad went on to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in financial accounting followed up with successfully completing CTA in the 2019 academic year after a few failed attempts.

‘During this whole ordeal, I learnt the value of being persistent and of being your own motivation. You do not have to accept your circumstances in life, but you have to choose to get up and try again every single day. You have to be ready to adapt to new circumstances, be open to change and challenges. Everyone has to face their own unique challenge. How you respond to it, is up to you.’

Even though his hand still can’t close fully and he has chronic back pain as well as sensation issues in various parts of his body, he is hopeful and excited for the future and will allow nothing to shatter his dreams. Ahmad is currently serving his third year of articles at Mazars in Johannesburg. He is a beacon of inspirational hope and light to all others who are struggling to follow their dreams. Today he knows his unique life challenges made him stronger and more determined to succeed, rather than a lessor man.

Ahmad is living proof that the way you deal with challenges can determine your success.


[1] https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/transverse-myelitis/symptoms-causes/syc-20354726#:~:text=Transverse%20myelitis%20is%20an%20inflammation,nerves%20send%20throughout%20the%20body