After losing his sight, former pilot Abbas Quamar is determined to help others as a counselor
Abbas "Bobby" Quamar, 37, walks through Oakland. He came to the United States after the 1996 accident that blinded him because of the increased study and career opportunities here.
Bobby with his mother, Bano Quamar, before the 1996 accident that caused him to lose his sight. She had a big influence on his rehabilitation.
Bobby Quamar (far left) with Air India colleagues before his 1996 accident.
Bobby Quamar at the Center for Assistive Technology where he takes classes for his graduate program in rehabilitation counseling at the University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.
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In early 1996, Abbas "Bobby" Quamar was a 22-year-old captain with Air India and enjoying the job he had worked hard to attain. He had graduated at the top of his class from the Indira Gandhi National Flying Academy and had been a licensed commercial pilot for two years.
Then came the accident.
On March 23 of that year, Mr. Quamar was landing an 11-seat turboprop on a short flight from Lucknow to Patna in Northern India, when a vulture flew into the windshield.
Vultures -- common to Patna because of its butcheries -- had hit planes before and usually were sucked up into their engines. This time was different. Because of the speed and altitude of the plane in landing mode, the plexiglass windshield did not remain intact as it was designed to do. The vulture's impact created a large gaping hole that sent splinters and shards into the pilot's face and eyes.
The co-captain managed to land the plane safely, and Mr. Quamar was transported to a New Delhi hospital, where his broken nose and jaw and facial wounds were treated. Because specialized treatment for his eyes was not available, Mr. Quamar lost his sight.
Thus began a long and sometimes bumpy journey to build a new life, craft a different career and strive to make a meaningful contribution in this world. That journey eventually led the former pilot to the University of Pittsburgh's School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, where he is working on a master's degree in rehabilitation counseling and where, on Nov. 5, he was inducted into Delta Alpha Pi, the international honor society for students with disabilities.
Over the years, Mr. Quamar has been asked to explain his journey many times, and he will tell you it can be summarized in two themes: One, leave no stone unturned; two, never give up.
Initial attempts to restore his vision were unsuccessful. The splinters had torn and damaged the retina, which is the beginning of the optic nerve with its millions of fibers and cells. No medical facility in India had the technology for restoration surgery. The delay in obtaining surgery caused further damage. Scar tissue had formed.
He and his father, Mafood Quamar, an anesthesiologist, traveled to Belgium for treatment from one of the top eye surgeons in the world. But by that time -- six months after the accident -- it was too late for surgery to be effective. The surgeon promised to do what he could. The operation restored less than 1 percent of his vision -- enough to allow him to see light colors and make out a little bit of shadow but far from restoring function.
"My search for a cure or treatment will never end," Mr. Quamar says, even 15 years later. "No stone will be left unturned. But whether I gain that or not, I still need to move forward."
When he speaks about the second theme of his journey -- the relentless drive to create a meaningful life -- he refers frequently to a constant voice in his ear, that of his mother, Bano Quamar. From the earliest days of his recovery, she urged him to reach his potential to his fullest.
"My becoming blind was a shock to my family," he said. "We never knew much about blindness." But the family, which also includes an older brother, had a "fighting spirit" that served him well.
"I did not want to live a life of mediocrity. I had excelled at aviation and all the sciences, and now it was as if the world was moving at jet speed and I was standing still. I knew that unless I started moving, I wouldn't achieve."
His hometown of Indore in Central India had limited rehabilitation resources. He learned to use computer screen readers and other technology designed for people with vision impairment. He mastered Braille in just six sessions -- the shortest time of any student at that particular center. (His first Braille sentence: "I don't want to learn Braille or have anything to do with blindness.")
His next step was to pursue a degree in tourism studies, a field he chose because it doesn't require many accommodations for blindness. During that period, he arrived at an unexpected turning point when Deshraj Arya, director of a complementary medicine center, told him, "You are a young healthy man. You can help others."
"His comment changed my perspective," Mr. Quamar said. "I began to think about what I could do for others, not just what I could do for myself."
He began to study acupressure and worked in Dr. Arya's center for a number of years. He then heard about the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford, England, where he could expand his education in complementary medicine.
The school was pricey: $64,000 per year. He refused his parents' offer to sell their house to pay his tuition, looking instead to every other possible source of scholarship assistance. (He even sent a request to the Queen of England, who politely declined in a letter that has become a keepsake.)
He earned a degree in therapeutic massage, worked in London, then decided to pursue a degree in physical therapy in the United States, known throughout the world as one of the most accommodating environments for people with disabilities. However, in respect to his blindness, he encountered barriers to pursuing a degree in the field. After 18 months in the physical therapy doctoral program at Pitt, difficulty with accommodations led him to redirect his studies to the field of rehabilitation counseling. He will graduate in 2013.
"Compared to other countries, there's a big difference here in the U.S. in regard to disability. But in spite of all the laws, it's not always a level playing field," he said.
Nevertheless, he said he is pleased with his decision to join the rehabilitation counseling program. "The school is fortunate to have Bobby," said associate dean Kathryn Seelman, one of his professors this term. "He is an engaged and excellent student."
Mr. Quamar's life took another turn in 2008, when he met his future wife, Tina, a native of India who was a physical therapy student at Michigan State University at the time. The couple, who found each other through a singles group sponsored by their religious community, discussed his blindness in many phone and email conversations before finally meeting.
"When we were planning to meet in Pittsburgh for the first time, I told him that if I felt I could not handle his blindness, I would immediately turn around and return to Michigan. That didn't happen," she said with a laugh.
First Published November 28, 2011 12:00 am