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The Brave Spirit of Zira Almeida

Zira with her husband Olencio

An accident paralyzed her legs, decease but not her will to live

A fall from a chickoo tree turned tragic for Zira Almeida. A spinal injury ended her teaching career and confined her to a wheelchair for the past 18 years. Nevertheless, this determined 63-year-old woman has braved the odds and has displayed an indomitable spirit, tackling life’s challenges head on…. Psychologist Dr. Charlane Pereira e Rebello caught up with Zira at her home in Chinchinim, in South Goa.

 

As I hurried to keep my appointment with Zira, heavy rains lashed the countryside. I made it just in time for an interesting têteàtête with this brave-hearted woman whose ‘never-say-die’ attitude and family love have helped her cope with her physical limitations.

Her husband Olencio welcomed me and I was quickly ushered in a long hallway as I greeted a smiling Zira seated in a wheelchair. I echoed the words softly, “Miss, how are you?” as I lightly touched her forearm.

What followed was an inspiring story of a genial soul leading her life with exceptional grace. As I found myself seated in a straight back chair opposite her, I was glad to be there. She is proof that even amidst unspeakably difficult circumstances, life is precious and must be embraced.

This is the lesson of Zira Almeida. That fall from the chickoo tree paralyzed her legs, but not her will to live.

It was in the year 1996. A devoted teacher, she had finished her lessons for the day, eaten some lunch and caught up on a short afternoon siesta, Goan-style. An enthusiastic Zira then climbed the chickoo tree – one she always climbed – in her compound to pluck a handful of chickoos.

She fell from a height of several metres on the stones below the tree, and lost consciousness for some time. Labourers rushed to her aid along with the neighbours. Zira recalls the fateful day, “I couldn’t feel my legs from hip down.”

Olencio rushed her to the family physician upon whose advice she was admitted to Goa Medical College and Hospital (GMC) in Bambolim. After two days she was shifted to Hinduja Hospital in Mumbai, where she underwent surgery.

Zira recalls her post-surgery days in the hospital. “I would often ask the attendants at the hospital whether I would be able to walk again.”

An extremely worried Olencio asked Dr. Bandekar, her neurosurgeon, “How long will she live?” The doctor allayed his fears and explained her condition of paraplegia (loss of motor or sensory functions of the lower extremities).

Zira was discharged from Hinduja Hospital a month later, carried out on a stretcher. She was then moved to a rehabilitation centre in Sion, Mumbai. Here she came in contact with many others in similar circumstances, often poor, often in pain. It dawned on Zira that she wasn’t the only one suffering.

The news was not good. Here she was – a 45-year-old mother of two, a successful teacher in the prime of her life. Not only had she lost the ability to walk, but also to control her bladder and bowels. She was completely dependent on her husband. This was the state of her health when she decided to move out of the centre after 2 ½ months and return home.

Her 2 young daughters, LuiAnne and JoyeAnne were eagerly waiting for her. Zira says, “They were very happy that I was home. They didn’t ask a single question. LuiAnne was in IXth standard and JoyeAnne was in IVth standard.”

She continues, “My faith gave me hope. I thought and I hoped that I would go back to (teaching) school.”

She had a very bad bed sore in Sion which had to be treated in Goa. There were days when Zira couldn’t sit even on a wheelchair and had to make do with a water mattress.

Periods of deep depression ensued, as she struggled to come to terms with what had happened. She had to depend on others for everything. At times, the sadness was unbearable.

But then something happened. Perhaps it wasn’t a miracle in the literal sense, but its consequences for her were as momentous as the parting of the seas.

Zira was touched by the love of her family.

“I experienced so much love from them. I realized that I shouldn’t hurt the other person. I have to smile. I regained my hope. I changed my perspective.”

She realized it wasn’t practical for her to return to teaching. And she also realized it didn’t matter. And then she spoke these golden words that are still ringing in my ears as I type them on my keyboard.

“Life is not about doing something but being something.”

Zira loves her husband Olencio with all her being. She says, “Olencio is very patient and quiet. It is difficult to get a husband like him. He is very loving and caring.”

Her children have now grown into professionals. LuiAnne decided to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a teacher, while JoyeAnne, having lived through her mom’s ordeal, is a physiotherapist, using what’s she’s learned to give back to others in need. Both young ladies have been Zira’s support and joy. Both are extraordinary women in their own right.

The family’s close relations helped them monetarily. Dr. Christopher Dias has also been very supportive, not charging any fees for his visits. Strange how situations like this one can bring out the true spirit of Goa.

Zira says, “A person has to be mentally and emotionally strong. Spiritual relationship with the Almighty is most important to live a fulfilling life.”

The late Christopher Reeves, the Hollywood actor who became a quadriplegic (complete paralysis of the body from neck down) always inspired Zira. She thought, “If he can, why can’t I?”

Today, Zira tutors a young student in her academics. She also manages cooking a few dishes from her wheelchair, as her kitchen is specially suited to her needs (with a low-built platform).

A regular disciple of yoga, Zira practices this for about 10-15 minutes regularly in the loving company of Olencio.

Zira says, “He is God’s gift to me.” Olencio has never complained and instead focuses on the positive, saying, “This keeps me more active.”

On a parting note to youngsters, Zira suggests they make time for prayer, “Even a short prayer will do. Read a simple passage from the Bible on how to lead a fruitful life. Respect your parents.”

And to all those out there who have experienced mishaps or ill-fortunes, Zira says, “Nothing bad flows from God.”

“Don’t despair. Don’t doubt. Don’t be depressed. Never give up.”

Destiny may have taken much from Zira Almeida. But there is no doubting the richness of her life.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. orlando Da Silva

    Teacher Zira was my teacher too at sacred Heart of Jesus High school at Carmona where I studied upto VII std and then moved to Model English High School Margao where I passed my SSC. Zira was more a friend and Mentor to me in the school. As student I was always in her company when ever she visited her relations in my neighbourhood. Whenever I think of Persons and teachers who have influenced my life and my character teacher Zira is one of them. She is always a smileing face to me. when I say my daily prayers for people who shaped my life I always think of Zira who is suffering due to a freak accident all her life, I pray god to give her strength and support and to keep her always smiling.
    Orlando Da Silva, Carmona

  2. clayton da silva

    Miss Zira she was my teacher in mount mary’s High school chinchim.May god bless her and her family.

  3. Anonymous

    She was a great teacher in Sacred Heart of Jesus High school Carmona. Sorry to hear about you who was my inspiring teacher once upon a time. God be with you. Sandra

  4. Anonymous

    She was a great teacher in Sacred Heart of Jesus High school Carmona. Sorry to hear about you who was my inspiring teacher once upon a time. God be with you. Sandra

  5. Mark

    Thank you for this write-up of Miss Zira. She was my teacher at Mount Mary’s High School. A very lively, fun filled teacher, a good human and now a brave soul. May God bless her and her family and give them the strength to move on.

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