S’pore model who lost use of limbs after accident wants people to ‘look beyond the wheelchair’

Fathima Zohra is beating the odds to pursue the life she had before — and more.

Alfie Kwa | January 25, 2022, 03:13 PM

Follow us on Telegram for the latest updates: https://t.me/mothershipsg

“We” and “us” were pronouns Fathima Zohra used throughout our conversation as she spoke about the journey people with physical disabilities go through and how she wants the group to be better assimilated into the community.

Zohra met with a horrific car accident five years ago, leaving her with a spinal cord injury, paralysing all her four limbs.

While she’s able to move her hands and arms a little, she remains in a wheelchair, unable to walk on her own.

“I was an able-bodied person, and now, I’m not,” the 25-year-old said matter-of-factly.

“How does it feel to be in this situation,” I asked, hoping I didn’t come off too insensitive.

Zohra used the Circuit Breaker in 2020 as an example. People were stuck at home, unable to move around a lot. We couldn’t meet friends or family and were barely socialising.

But when the Circuit Breaker ended, we moved on from it, going back to the office, heading out and meeting friends. Or at least, most of us were.

This was not the case for many people with physical disabilities, especially those who want to engage with their community but can’t. It’s a struggle that they go through every single day, Zohra explained. As if their life is a giant Circuit Breaker.

For this reason, Zohra has made it her purpose to impact lives as a programme manager at Runninghour, a social enterprise for people with special needs, while being an influencer, model, and advocate for people with disabilities.

The car crash

Zohra has “absolutely no memory” of the car crash that changed her life in 2017. Zohra was on holiday in India when the car that she and her friends were in collided with a tree.

She remembers certain things — sitting in the middle of the back seat of the car — but when it comes to the crash itself, Zohra’s mind still draws a blank.

She admitted that she occasionally tries to recall the accident, shutting her eyes and reaching far into the recesses of her mind for detail. But her efforts were futile.

Over at the hospital in India where Zohra was conveyed post-accident, her friends received heart-dropping news. What they initially thought was a head wound that could be fixed with a few stitches turned out to be a spine injury.

The bad news didn’t end there. Because the damage occurred at the C6 and C7 levels of Zohra’s spine, she lost full control of her hands and legs.

Image courtesy of Fathima Zohra.

The accident also put her in a coma for a month. Zohra still remembers waking up and discovering with horror that her hands were tied to the hospital bed and there were tubes protruding out of her neck.

She was later told that the nurses had to restrain her as she had attempted to rip the tubes out.

“Because I was trying to end my life, you know? That's how bad it was.”

While she couldn’t remember how the accident happened, she felt the immediate need to blame herself for her misfortune.

“Did I do something bad to deserve this?” she wondered.

In the blink of an eye, her life changed. One moment she was living life so freely, and the next, she was strapped to a hospital bed.

All the muscles below her neck, including those that help her regulate temperature and sensation, were damaged.

She also has to deal with muscle spasms, chronic pain in her legs, breathing problems and fluctuating blood pressure, which are common effects of a spinal cord injury — affects which she still experiences to this day.

“If I don't go through any of that in one day, that's a big achievement.”

Aside from these, Zohra said that during her first few months of recovery in India, she started to develop a fear of the place that was keeping her alive – the hospital.

Fear of hospitals

Zohra at the hospital in India. Image courtesy of Fathima Zohra.

“More than my injury itself, it was the experience at the hospital that absolutely destroyed me.”

Zohra is an incomplete quadriplegic, which means that she retained some control of her limbs, particularly her arms and fingers, and also kept her sense of touch.

“But in the hospital, when they see a paralysed person who can't move, they're like, ‘Oh, this person can't feel anything’. So they just move [you] around quite literally like a vegetable.”

She began feeling like an object, she didn’t like being handled roughly and being tossed around.

Zohra recounted spending sleepless nights fearing that someone would just pick her up and take her away. And there was nothing she could do about it.

“I didn't want to close my eyes. And like every time I shut my eyes, I would open it again because I was like, ‘Oh no, something's gonna happen’. Like they're gonna do something to me.”

Even after she returned to Singapore, she continued feeling that way, and eventually developed a fear of the hospital.

Just last year, her blood pressure spiked at 160, which meant that she had Grade 2 hypertension. Her parents wanted to take her to the hospital, but she was terrified by the prospect of reliving her hospital experience and refused to go.

“I was like passing out and I kept going through the pain for an entire day. I was like no, I can deal with this, I'm going to get okay.”

Eventually, she started vomiting, and her parents had no choice but to call for an ambulance.

“I would go to that extent just to avoid going to the hospital.”

Her six months in that hospital in India — which felt like an eternity — also made her question her future.

Confined to the ICU, Zohra saw patients coming and going every day — some went home breathing, but others were not as lucky — and she was convinced that “this was not a life worth living”.

Her road to recovery

Zohra at one of her physiotherapy sessions. Image courtesy of Fathima Zohra.

Zohra began her physiotherapy sessions back in Singapore at the SPD, a charity that helps to integrate people with disabilities into society. Society for the Physically Disabled (SPD), is a program that helps patients get back into employment.

Admittedly, she wasn’t too motivated to get better because she doubted that anything was going to help her walk again.

But as the weeks went by, she slowly started seeing changes, even small ones and that kept her going.

“I was able to breathe better, I was able to sit up longer, I was able to sit then stand. So things were slowly, but surely looking better for me. And when I saw that, I was like, there is hope.”

But as invigorating as a tiny glimmer of hope can be, it is often equally fleeting. When Zohra asked her doctor if she would ever walk again, he laughed and said: “You have very great ambitions.”

She went home and cried for days after that but emerged later with the resolve to never “let another person tell me what I can or cannot do again”.

With that, she committed herself to rehab sessions with renewed energy.

For Zohra, recovery is not just about regaining her ability to walk. It is also about regaining her independence and with it, her identity.

So she relearned how to get out of bed, how to do her makeup, and even how to text, thanks to thrice-weekly gym sessions which helped her regain the strength in her arms and hands.

At one point during the interview, Zohra’s phone ping-ed with a text notification.

“I still can’t clench my fists,” she said, explaining why she could not just grab her phone on the table.

She slotted her index finger through the ring holder at the back of her phone to lift it.

She then flipped her phone around and leaned it against her palm, allowing her to read the message and slowly compose a reply with her left hand.

It’s a far cry from pre-2017 Fathima Zohra:

“I had absolutely everything. I was active, I had grit and I had a body that allowed me to do like a billion things in a day.”

She was a teenager living her best life the way she knew how – hanging out with friends and working as a model and social media influencer for beauty and fitness brands.

This picture was taken before the accident. Image courtesy of Fathima Zohra.

But her injury made her take a step back from everything.

“How am I even going to go back to social media when I don't even accept myself outside of social media?”

It took her some time but it was that same steely resolve that pushed her to accept her disability so that life can return to the way it was, as much as possible.

Of course, it’s impossible to have her old life back, but she is still able to dress up, put on her makeup and leave the house, go out with her friends, and head to the beach.

All people saw was her wheelchair

However, it seems like the community around her has a harder time accepting her disability.

“The more I was putting myself out there, the more people I was exposing myself to,” she said.

Image taken by rbproductionsg/IG.

Zohra is a social media influencer, a model, a programme manager with a social enterprise, and more importantly, an advocate for people with physical disabilities, but all people could see was her wheelchair.

“I'm invisible, people are not willing to see anything but the wheelchair, you know. But for me, it’s still me, I'm still right here.”

She still has encounters with strangers who ask what happened to her, and why she is in a wheelchair.

Such interactions make her feel that the wheelchair and her disability define who she is in the eyes of the public.

“Like, would you ever just approach an able-bodied person and be like, ‘Hey, tell me about your trauma’? You would never do that. It can get very overwhelming.”

Some accused her of faking her disability because according to Zohra, some people still have an impression that disabled people tend to look sick or pitiful.

“I look very presentable, I dress up, yeah, I wear gym clothes. And then, for some reason, they think I'm faking it.”

Others even made fun of her body in comments on social media.

“Let me live just the way you want to live,” was Zohra’s response.

The negative comments, which also found their way into Zohra’s DMs, have only made her more keen to push forward even though it takes extra planning and research to see if the places she wants to go to are wheelchair-accessible.

Aside from that, Zohra, also known as Zoe Zora online, uses her social media platforms to talk about her recovery, her workout routines, and her mental health journey, in videos that garner thousands of views.

View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Zoe Zora | Fathima Zohra (@zoraaax6)

One of her videos received 2.6 million views on TikTok.

@zoezoraa It’s so exhausting being strong, I just want to be able to stand on my own #spinalcordinjury #caraccident ♬ Don't let me down - ❤🐵

“I’ll still go on”, she said, “because I want to be loud so people get comfortable with seeing us everywhere and welcome us everywhere.”

“I have so many people in my DMs saying that the fact I share my story has inspired them to keep going. And that just keeps me going, honestly.”

Zohra wants to prove that she can do the things that she could before the accident, and more. She hopes others in the community will be empowered by her journey

“I thought my life would be different… But I've realised that I'm exactly where I should be. Because if it wasn't for this life-changing experience, I wouldn't be trying to make such a big difference in other people's lives.”

“I'm genuinely telling people I'm the happiest I've ever been, apart from some trouble I face with my body. I want people to believe it.”

Follow and listen to our podcast here

Images courtesy of Fathima Zohra.