Serena Tejpar is not supposed to be alive.
The injuries she suffered, during a horrific crash en route to Toronto, were catastrophic: sheared aorta, collapsed lungs, broken pelvis and sacrum, torn bladder, a bruised liver, pancreas and spleen, and a massive brain bleed that left her in a coma.
Doctors told Tejpar’s parents that by the time their flight from Calgary landed in London, it might be too late.
Now, three years later, she has not only defied any medical explanation as to her recovery, the 21-year-old crossed the stage with her classmates on Oct. 24 at Western’s 312thConvocation to earn her Bachelor of Medical Sciences (Honors) degree.
“I’m grateful for every day and I’m grateful for the little miracles that have allowed me to be here today,” said Tejpar, now a Master of Science in Global Health student at McMaster University. “I think Convocation has not hit me yet. And I don’t think it will be until I’m crossing that stage, to realize that all my determination and perseverance has led me to where I am today.”
It was a chilly November evening in 2015 and Tejpar had just started her second year at Western. She and three friends were driving on Highway 401, on their way to Toronto when, at Sweaburg Road, their vehicle was broadsided. Tejpar, even with her seatbelt on in the back seat, bore the force of the crash.
‘Darkest times of our lives’
She recalls having been in class earlier that day, saying goodbye to friends as she left – then it was suddenly a month-and-a-half later, emerging up from a coma, with her family in the room.
“It just seems like a bad nightmare. I’m still living with the impacts of the accident, with the injuries and complications that follow, and those are a daily reminder of what happened,” said Tejpar. “Even though I was detached from it … I’m living with the consequences.”
Medical staff told her family Serena’s injuries were so severe that even if she survived, her brain was so damaged she might never be capable even of playing tic-tac-toe.
“Those days were the darkest times of our lives. We did not know if Serena would survive that hour, or that day or the next or, if she would survive, how she would emerge from the coma with the traumatic brain injuries she sustained,” her mother Mona Kara said.
“From earlier on, our family had made a decision we were going to take one day at a time and try not to think too much ahead. The future seemed extremely bleak, so staying focused on one day at a time helped us move forward to the next day.
“The strength and hope for our family to carry forward came from love, kindness and prayers not only from our family and friends, but also the hospital staff and the whole of the London community including the wonderful and generous community at Western.”
Kara believes her daughter is alive today because of the tireless efforts of all the nurses, doctors and support staff at Victoria Hospital’s Critical Care Trauma Centre who worked with her around the clock and refused to give up on Serena.
“We called them her ‘guardian angels.’ Without their genuine care, kindness, compassion and professionalism, she would not be where she is today,” she said. “They were not just her health-care professionals, but were also her cheerleaders and her advocates while still being cautiously optimistic.”
Tejpar recovered enough to return home to Calgary; and, with that remarkable journey behind her, Serena’s academic story might have ended there.
Instead, while still in a wheelchair, she began preparing for exams.
‘I have a plan’
“Being the stubborn person that I am, I refused to be (academically) behind,” she said.
“The type of person I am, I have a plan. When that plan gets disrupted and changed, you panic. You try and find ways to make up for that and get back on track. For me, that was my mindset and even though I was struggling daily, and still am today with the physical, emotional and psychological difficulties,
I didn’t want this accident to stop my life. That’s what kept me going. I didn’t want it to determine my future.”
Just six months after emerging from the coma, Tejpar was back on campus, getting caught up on what she missed by enrolling in summer classes.
A month later, she went into congestive heart failure, and the resulting surgery mean she missed more time.
“It’s kind of been these complications are following me and seems like it’s never going to end,” said Tejpar. She took second-year courses in year three, and third-year courses in year four to catch up fully.
“I even had to take a course this past summer to complete my degree and now I’m finally graduating.”
Her family were at her side during Convocation in Alumni Hall.
But there’s no space, anywhere, that’s large enough for her second family – Western’s professors, students, staff and administrators, and the medical and health professionals at LHSC – who have cheered every step of her journey.
‘Nothing short of a miracle’
“I would say it is because of Serena’s sheer stubbornness, determination and the strong will not to give up or be left behind in her studies, that she is where she is today,” said Kara. “It is nothing short of a miracle that we get to celebrate this milestone with Serena. Even in the face of daily challenges, she still remains strong in her relentless determination and perseverance to follow her dreams.”
Tejpar has received many awards and honours in recognition of her leadership, community service and academic excellence. She was named a Top 50 Emerging Leader and, at Western, was philanthropy coordinator with the Residence Student Council, a student representative of Friends of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), a Student Success Centre mentor with the Leadership & Academic Mentorship Program, an active member with the Ismaili Student Association, and an undergraduate Orientation leader.
Her earlier choice to pursue a career in medicine became a firm commitment to herself, thanks to a photo Tejpar later saw of herself. In the photo, she was hooked up to five lifesaving machines – and someone had carefully, lovingly, braided her hair.
“Looking at that, it brought me to my passion for medicine,” said Tejpar. “To see that these health-care professionals cared for me as more than just a bed number, that saw me as an 18-year-old girl who had an unfair situation come about, and who is just struggling to survive, that touched my heart and likely meant the world to my family. I know it did.”
Still living with the effects of the accident today, Tejpar is in London often for doctors’ appointments. It continues to be an opportunity for her to visit her ‘guardian angels.’
“I make a point to go back and see them,” she said. “Being in a career like trauma, once a patient is discharged you don’t necessarily see the patients afterwards. For them, seeing someone like me coming back – literally being on my death bed and having a zero per cent chance of survival – it reinforces why they do what they do.”
The experience has been life-changing for everyone, said Kara.
“Our family has always been very close and big on hugs and ‘I love you’s,’ but now we definitely make the extra effort of not having any unspoken words, including words of encouragement and of love, understanding and compassion. It has also encouraged us to pay it forward in whatever capacity we can in our daily lives.”