BOSTON — For 31-year-old Muji Karim, the Boston Marathon bombings brought back bad memories and nightmares.
“It was a tough, tough few days for me, to be honest. It all resonated and it hit home,” he said. “It just brought back some memories that I would rather not have to have to think about anymore.”
Watching the news, Karim saw stories unfold that in some ways echoed his own. In 2011, he was involved in a single car crash on Storrow Drive in Boston. The car rolled over, hit a tree and caught fire. His brother, who was driving, suffered burns over a large portion of his body. Karim hit his head during the accident and was knocked unconscious. He had fourth degree burns on both of his legs and his left hand.
He was in a coma for about three weeks. When he woke up, he told a nurse that he could not feel his feet. The nurse broke the news: both of his legs had been amputated.
“It was tough. It was just all sort of surreal,” Karim recalled. “When I finally realized what had happened as a result of the accident, it was all these thoughts: if I’m ever going to be able to play basketball, be active again, let alone am I even going to be able to walk again? So it was a lot of mixed emotions. You’re just at a loss.”
Karim has always been athletic. He was a star football player at the University of New Hampshire until he graduated in 2007 and had the opportunity to try out for the Cleveland Browns.
He admitted that there were times while he was at Brigham and Women’s Hospital that he was depressed. “I was wondering whether I was even happy that I survived,” he said. “But that didn’t last long and I’m sort of grateful for that.”
His mother played a big role in helping him keep things in perspective. Karim said he was always a “glass half full kind of guy.”
“I thought to myself that if this had to happen to anybody that I loved, I would sort of rather it be me, because I feel like I can deal with this,” he said.
He focused on how many things went right instead of what went wrong. Karim noted he was fortunate that when he hit his head he was knocked unconscious so he does not remember anything immediately after the accident. Doctors had told his family that Karim had only a 10 to 20 percent chance of survival because of his injuries, but he beat the odds. If he had hit his head differently, he could have been paralyzed instead of only losing two legs.
“You can have a bad day, you can have two bad days, but don’t have a bad week,” Karim explained. “A lot of it is mental. And it’s sort of mind over matter.”
Still, he says, it was not easy. “It took a while to sort of come to grips with everything. But then once I did it was no turning back.”
So he focused on the future.
“I didn’t want my injuries or what happened to me to become what described me. I didn’t want to be the guy who used to play football who lost his legs and that’s what everybody knew of me,” Karim said. “You know what I mean? I still wanted to be who I was.” He insists the person he was before the accident is still the person he is now: funny, strong, positive.
Once he reached Spaulding Rehabilitation Center, Karim was determined to walk again. Doctors told him that because of the extent of his injuries it could take a year or longer before he could use prosthetics, but he was persistent.
“I wouldn’t describe myself as hard headed, but a lot of other people would,” he said. “I was just so used to being strong, and so-called ‘big, tough guy,’ I wanted to muscle through everything.”
So Karim had to learn to listen and be patient. “It was just so foreign to me,” Karim said of using the prosthetics. “You have to learn to stand up again. You have to put one foot in front of the other again. I Googled walking just so I could try to simulate that the best way I could.”
Within a month he stood up. Three months after the accident — on December 19, 2011 — he walked.
And Karim said he is not done yet. After the accident, when he was still in the hospital, he joked that he was going to run the Boston Marathon in 2014.
“I was like, ‘Give me two years, I’ll be able to figure it out,’ ” he recalled, adding that it would be more difficult. He would have to buy and learn how to use special prosthetics for running. “But now I think I do want to do it. I think I want to try to do it,” Karim said. “I don’t know if there’s enough time. … [But] it sort of resonates a little more with me and it means a little bit more now.”
Karim said he wants to be a motivational speaker or work with other amputees someday. His message is simple for those survivors who have lost limbs, “To me, healing starts with your mind. If you decide that you’re going to feel sorry for yourself and you decide that your life is over, then it is.”
But Karim said his heart goes out to the marathon bombing survivors because they have an additional challenge that he never had.
“Nobody purposefully intended for this to happen to me. Accidents happen every day,” Karim said of his car accident. “When somebody intentionally does something to you, it’s going to be an anger toward them. And I never had to experience that, but I know it’s going to impede healing process if you’re angry, you’re not at peace. It sort of adds another obstacle to their recovery.”
Karim hopes that the survivors can focus on the positives and the future ahead, and know that they, too, can eventually run again.