Brain tumor and car crash survivor aspires to be example for others living with disabilities

Sahar Mashhour's disability led her to see life in a new way

10:43 AM

Author | Valerie Goodwin

woman in hospital on left in ICU and the other right side woman standing in jean jacket and black clothes smiling
Mashhour runs her own photography business where she uses only her left hand to take photos. Courtesy of Sahar Mashhour

At age 20, during a visit to the University of Michigan, Sahar Mashhour was a passenger in a severe car crash where the vehicle flipped multiple times before landing right side up.

Because of the accident, the seatbelt cut into Mashhour’s abdomen, requiring immediate care to save her life.

Mashhour was rushed to the University of Michigan Hospital emergency room where she was immediately brought into surgery.

Upon arrival into the emergency department, doctors found that the abdominal injuries left Mashhour’s internal organs exposed with her pancreas cut in half, abdominal wall almost unrepairable and part of her colon and her spleen in need of removal.

In addition to the abdominal injuries, Mashhour broke her left femur, left ankle, right knee and tore all her ligaments.

Mashhour’s surgical team worked carefully to address the injuries including repositioning the internal organs, stopping the bleeding and rebuilding her abdominal wall.

The team was only able to close part of the wounds, while the deep lesions remained open to prevent infection and to heal over time.

For her leg injuries, external fixation was used to keep the bones aligned and stable.

After the initial repairs, Mashhour went through a series of surgeries to restore her femur, knee, ankle and ligaments using various surgical procedures.

“I stayed in the hospital for about three months,” said Mashhour.

“The first part of that visit was just trying to fix me up, the second part was working on getting my strength back.”

Due to her torn abdomen from the accident and the impact to her extremities, Mashhour had to start from the beginning when it came to rehabilitation.

“I had to start by relearning how to sit up and get my feet on the ground before I could make any further progress,” she said.

But Mashhour had an extra challenge in her way when it came to rehabilitation: the right side of her body had already experienced weakness for about a decade due to a brain tumor she was treated for during childhood.

A previous cancer treatment

At the age of ten, Mashhour was diagnosed with an oligodendroglioma. The tumor was located on the left side of the brain causing weakness on the entire right side of her body that impacted her moving and mobility.

As a child, she underwent two brain surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation as treatment to her cancer. She has been cancer free since 2008 but the weakness persists.

Mashhour’s cancer caused mobility limitations and muscle spasticity, which the accident only made worse.

Rehabilitation, and a new outlook

After being discharged for treatment from the car accident from University of Michigan Health, Mashhour started seeing Edward Claflin, M.D., a clinical associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Michigan, to help treat the intense tightness she was experiencing on her right side.

“In people with muscle tightness like Mashhour has, we want to relax the muscles so that the person can move more freely and with less pain,” said Claflin.

“With Mashhour, I will see her once every three months and administer botulinum toxin injections in both her right arm and leg to help loosen the muscle tension.”

These injections help relax the muscles on the right side of her body so she can move more freely.

I have had to adjust my life to fit where I am now, but my disability doesn’t define who I am or what I do.”

Sahar Mashhour

Without these types of injections, daily tasks such as walking or putting on a shirt can prove difficult.

Botulinum toxin prevents nerves from sending the signal to muscles to contract, and it is this toxin that can cause paralysis if people get “botulism” food poisoning. However, this medication is quite safe if injected into overactive muscles and has been used for this therapeutic purpose for decades.

After injections, people usually notice a significant reduction in the abnormal muscle tightness that has been causing them problems with little to no side effects.

While the botulinum toxin treatments do prove useful in relaxing the muscles, their effectiveness starts to decrease after three months, necessitating repeated visits.

“I notice when the injections are wearing off after three months,” said Mashhour.

“There is a big difference in the pain levels I experience as well as my range of motion before receiving treatment versus after.”

Mashhour says she can notice a positive difference in her mobility between the time of the accident and now thanks to the treatments she receives from Claflin, but she knows she won’t ever be back to where she was before the accident.

Thriving and leading in example

Despite the hardships Mashhour has endured, she is choosing to have a positive outlook on her disability.

“Even though I will never be back to where I was, that’s okay,” Mashhour states.

“I have had to adjust my life to fit where I am now, but my disability doesn’t define who I am or what I do.”

Since the accident, Mashhour graduated from University of Michigan Dearborn, began working as a marketing consultant and has also started her own photography business, SM Photography.

Mashhour had a love for photography since she was a little girl, and this hobby grew with time.

“I’ve always had a passion for it and decided to give professional photography a try,” she said.

Mashhour photographs engagements, couples, graduates, family photoshoots and more.

“The operations for the majority of cameras are on the right side,” said Mashhour.

“Since I can only use my left hand to take photos, I have learned how to take quality photos with one hand and a bit backwards.”

Mashhour wants to change people’s perception on disabilities by demonstrating how a person can work hard to achieve their goals, even if that means by adopting a new process for how they approach things.

Her optimism and outlook has particularly touched Claflin.

“She acknowledges that her status can be difficult and painful, but she makes sure she is present for the experiences she is having from her disability,” said Claflin.

“It allows her to process her hardships so she can be present for all aspects of her life and pursue her passions. It’s a joy to be able to help someone with such an indominable spirit live as well as they’re able. Sahar is a remarkable person that has a lesson to teach us all about living with dignity.”

Mashhour not only hopes that her outlook can change how others view disabilities, but how people with disabilities view their own life.

She hopes to inspire others to pursue their passion in a way that works for them.

“Yes, the situation is not the best and the journey is difficult, but it has changed my mind set and perception of the world for the better. I see the world through a different lens now,” said Mashhour.

Being a photographer, Mashhour describes her outlook as a camera lens.

“A lens can only show you so much; you must adjust it or even use a different lens to see the whole picture. This journey has allowed me to modify my lens on life and consider it a blessing in disguise."

More Articles About: chronic pain Pain Pain management Neuro Rehabilitation Neurological (Brain) Conditions Neurosurgery & Neurological Procedures Neurology Physical Therapy Cancer (Oncology) Brain Tumor Pediatric Cancer Emergency & Trauma Care
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Department of Communication at Michigan Medicine

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