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DOWNEY – Dr. Pankaj Parekh, a world leader in water quality who made a heroic recovery at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center after a near-fatal motorcycle accident in July 2011 paralyzed his legs and ravaged his body, died Jan. 30.
He died after a two-and-a-half year battle with the aftereffects of his accident, but not until his story inspired people around the world.
Dr Parekh, who was treated by Dr. Michael Scott at Rancho, became a worldwide symbol of courage as the subject of the award-winning 2013 documentary “TODAY.” The nine-minute film tells the poignant story of his life and how he overcame many new and difficult challenges with the unconditional love of his wife, Anne.
“His struggle is illustrative of the changes and challenges that Rancho patients face after a disabling illness or injury,” said Rancho Chief Medical Officer Dr. Mindy Aisen. “Dr. Parekh led an amazing life both before and after he sustained a spinal cord injury, and he and his wife and their incredible love story have given hope to countless individuals with disabilities throughout the world,” she said.
Here, in his own words from the documentary, “TODAY” written and directed by Phillip Montgomery, is Dr. Parekh’s inspiring story:
“I began my career in Africa. I was fresh out of graduate school from UCLA with dreams of building safe water projects, curbing disease and fighting illness. But I was immersed in this world of contrasts. One moment I was dancing joyously with the villagers or celebrating digging a new well so that women no longer had to walk miles to wash their clothes and get water for their babies. Then in the next moment you hear these cries, these screams of terror and death and I was helping build mass graves for the kids I knew by name.
“It seemed so inhuman and yet I almost felt that there must have been a reason that I was exposed to all of that. There was a message in it that I should value every moment of my life.”
After serving 13 years in Africa, Dr. Perekh returned to Los Angeles, where he became the Director of Water Quality for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, responsible for the clean drinking water of over four million people.
On the morning of July 18, 2011, he was struck by an automobile while riding his motorcycle into work and nearly died.
“After my accident, the first thing I saw was Annie. She was my girlfriend of 15 years, but when I woke up and saw her in the hospital, I knew that I wanted her to be as close to me as possible. I could not talk, I was hooked up to tubes, I could hardly breathe. With a letter signboard I nodded the words and could not finish the sentence before she knew with tears in her eyes that she would marry me.
“I realized the damage my body had sustained, how little physically I was going to be able to do. I didn’t want to live, to be a burden to those I love and I did not think I had the strength. Annie did not force my hand. She let me know that any decision to turn off the machine would be mine. But when I looked in her eyes, it was a different story.
“I could see her heart, and her heart was saying, ‘Live, we can do this, We can make it.’ From that moment on, I wanted to live. So I’m learning every day something new about my body and what it can do and cannot do. Even something as simple as a wrinkle in a sheet can be fatal for me. It can cut through my skin. Or stubbing my toe and having a little bleeding, something that I cannot feel can be devastating.
“There are the new battles I must fight every day, every hour. People ask me sometimes, aren’t motorcycles dangerous, and they still ask me. And I grew up and rode the bike for 45 years. And I thought as long as you care for yourself and your own driving you should be fine. But the one factor that nobody thinks about or imagines is something happening behind you. And I can’t help but look for some meaning because it was so abrupt and it was no fault of mine.
“In all humility, I must admit these issues pale in the scope of the other concerns of which I’m even more aware. I’ve spent the last 25 years to provide us with one of the simplest of necessities in one of the most vast and complex water systems in the world. And I try to move my legs and I cannot. I wonder if these challenges of sustainable water are even more difficult, how do we keep up? Pollutants in our water, federal spending cuts, our failing infrastructure, a lack of money for research and development, privatization of municipal water supplies, the fight to keep these municipalities municipal. And most frightening, a diminishing supply of clean drinking water.
“It’s ironic today how people look at me with a sense of fear, regret, or even sadness. My time in the hospitals that I had to rehabilitate from was a protected environment. But the day I stepped out and entered the real world, I was afraid to see the look in strangers’ eyes. One thing I do feel when strangers in my own city give me those looks or behave in that way, sometimes I want to scream out that I’m fighting every day, fighting to live so that I can still continue to do something good for us all.
“I live in this city. I drink the water we provide. But without it, how would this city live? How would we survive? There would be no food, no homes, no love, no school life, no way for me to try and stand again. These are not just the problems of poor villagers in Africa that I once served, but of the larger village that is our own backyard.
“And for that, for my wife Annie and her children who I love as my own, for my village, I want to live. I want to work another day. I dream one day we will all know what matters to us most. For me, that’s to help bring you water, a basic need. But we have many needs. For you that might mean giving friendship, art, science, faith, love, provide strength to others as my Annie has to me.
“I dream tomorrow we take these ideas and run. But today, I walk.”
To view the film of Dr. Parekh’s life that was the winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 2013 Seattle International Film Festival, go to http://phillipmontgomery.net/TODAY
The Parekh family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations in Dr. Parekh’s name be made to the Rancho Research Institute. Donations may be made at larei.org or by check to Rancho Research Institute Foundation, 7601 E. Imperial Hwy., Downey, CA 90242.
Published: Feb. 13, 2014 – Volume 12 – Issue 44