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news News Wednesday, July 31, 2019 Wednesday, July 31, 2019 1:48 PM - Wednesday, July 31, 2019 1:48 PM

Tragedy inspires Shriner driver to give back

Limb loss gave Mahi Shriner unique ability to relate to the patients he serves

Tragedy inspires Shriner driver to give back

Seeraj Rooplal knows how it feels to have strangers ask what happened to his hand. He knows what it’s like to re-learn how to shower, shave, tie his shoes and write his name.

“At first I wanted to hide,” he said. “But I learned to adapt.”

Seven years have passed since the 51-year-old lost his right hand while cleaning a lift station at a South Florida sewage treatment plant in 2012. The accident, along with a near-death experience while in the hospital, changed not only how he performed tasks but also altered how he relates to the world. It also inspired him to become a Shriner and a volunteer driver for Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa.

“A teenager asked me why I do this," said Rooplal, a Mahi Shriner who recently completed his sixth trip transporting patients from the Miami-Dade County area to the Tampa Shriners Hospital. “I told him I wanted to give back.”

Rooplal remembers in vivid detail that day in late January when his life changed forever. The skies were sunny. He and his co-worker laughed and joked. They talked about his co-worker’s interest in running. They had just finished their first assignment of the day and had moved on to the lift station.

Rocks were lodged inside a pump that Rooplal was working on with pliers. When the tool failed, he reached with his right hand to clear the blockage. Without warning, a rotor used to move water began to move. He jerked his arm out. Seconds later, he saw his glove on the ground.

He yelled to his colleague, who began to scream. In spite of the searing pain, Ripoll managed to calmly direct him to shut down the system and call 911. A passing sheriff’s deputy stopped to help. Rooplal was airlifted to the hospital. Doctors performed surgery. While in the hospital, he died on the table. Doctors brought him back. Then the medicine they gave him caused his kidneys to fail.

The recovery was long, and Rooplal, who lost his dominant hand, had to re-learn how to perform basic tasks. “The hardest one was shaving,” he said. “You have to do it from a different angle.” He also learned to drive, write and take a shower. To tie his shoes, he used his teeth to hold the laces. He eventually got a prosthetic arm and hand.

During his recovery, Rooplal got to know a neighbor who was a Mason. Rooplal began studying to become one. “While I visited the (Masonic) Lodge, I heard about Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa, and all the good work they do for the kids,” he said.

Rooplal recently became a volunteer driver. Now he works tirelessly, getting up at 3 a.m. to transport children to and from the Tampa Shriners Hospital. Rooplal’s own experiences give him a unique compassion for patients and their families.

Rooplal knew he was making a difference during his first trip. “I remember seeing their need for help, along with their sense of happiness after their visit to the Tampa Shriners Hospital,” Rooplal recalled. For example, Rooplal transported a boy with cerebral palsy. As part of his care at our hospital, the boy received a wheelchair. “I noticed a huge change for the better in the boy, between his first and second visit to our hospital,” he said.

Similarly, Rooplal also recalls a teenager who was fitted with two artificial legs. “The young man and his family talked about how much they liked the care they received at Shriners Tampa, and how impressed they were by how early I get up in the morning and how far I drive to transport them to our hospital,” Rooplal said.

Rooplal still has his prosthetic arm, but he uses it mainly to do yard work.

Childless before the accident, the experience made him want to be a father. Today, he and his wife have a son and a daughter. “I’m building them a tree house,” he said with a smile.

Rooplal with van