33. Felipe Saldarriaga: Coping with unexpected challenges in life

Sue Stockdale talks to Felipe Saldarriaga, a stroke survivor and entrepreneur from Medellin, Colombia about how he coped when faced with this unexpected life changing situation.

At age 11 he was left on a wheelchair with a full left side paralysis due to an unexplainable stroke. As a result of this he had to learn to walk again and basically hack his way through life to get the most of it. Fast forward 19 years to today, as a 30 year old, he’s still recovering from the paralysis but has travelled to four continents, worked with an Academy award-winning producer doing feature film in Argentina, has organized conferences, art and music festivals for thousands of people and even learned to scuba dive, a lifelong dream of his. He’s the cofounder at Discovery Talks, a qualitative research software that helps people gain valuable insights from their conversations.

Connect with Felipe Saldarriaga on LinkedIn or Twitter.


Connect with Access to Inspiration on social media via Twitter  and Facebook  and Instagram and LinkedIn

Felipe Saldarriaga transcription

Sue: Welcome listeners. It’s Sue Stockdale here from the Access to Inspiration podcast. The show where you can be inspired by people who may be unlike you today, we’re heading to Colombia and I’m going to be speaking with Felipe Saldarriaga about his own personal challenges that he has overcome in his life. And maybe we’ll learn a little bit about resilience along the way. Welcome to the podcast Felipe.

Felipe: [00:00:35] Hi Sue. Thank you very much for having me.

Sue: [00:00:38] Now, I know you’ve managed to overcome the odds in your life. Tell me about what life was like in Colombia. And what happened to you when you were 11 years old?

Felipe: [00:00:47] On April 29, 2001. I was 11. I was out in the countryside with a friend of mine and his family. We went quad biking, like these little mini quad bikes, and we went around. So we were riding around this oval track and then the second lap on the curve, to the left, I fell down once I got up, got back in the quad bike and then on the next lap, I fell down again. But this time I couldn’t stand up, I was suddenly paralyzed from my left side and I couldn’t move.

So they rushed me to the hospital where the doctors took me into the ER, into observation to figure out what was going on. [00:01:30] They really didn’t have any idea. You have to think that this is a hospital in the countryside so it wasn’t like the most advanced or with the best equipment. And the doctors were baffled by the situation. I can remember just laying there on the stretcher with the doctor asking me questions. And he called my father and I remember him telling him Juan,  Felipe had an accident. he fell down from a quad bike. He can’t move, but the exams we’re doing are not really showing us anything. And so I would like to send him to Medellin to this hospital to put him under observation for 48 hours to which my father replied. Please send him to a different hospital where he had good relationship with the doctors at this hospital. So they put me in the ambulance, they rushed me down to Medellin. All the way down. I could feel my body getting numb and just no movement, like a full paralysis. I remember getting down to the hospital in Medellin. They put me in the stretcher, like in the TV shows like really they’re just like the nurse rushing me in. I remember remember that before going into the emergency room, I could see my mom and my dad. They just hold their hands for a bit. And then everything faded to black. Then the next morning I woke up. And they couldn’t feel a thing on my whole left side, it was a  full left side paralysis due to an ischemic stroke, which for an 11 year old is [00:03:00] as rare as it can get in medicine.

Sue: [00:03:03] What were you thinking at that moment, Felipe, when you realized you had this paralysis and you were hearing what sorts of conversations that the doctors were having around, perhaps not knowing what it was?

Felipe: [00:03:13] To be honest, it was just, I was overwhelmed in a way, but calm. I honestly didn’t know how to react. I was just waiting for them to come up with an answer. But I, I can just remember just getting really dizzy feeling, not oriented, and I could just feel that, oh, something is wrong. I didn’t think that it was something that could kill me, that this could be the end of my life. I think when you’re 11. You’re just doing this and to really comprehend that you’re in a hospital that doctors don’t know what’s going on. So it was just like this feeling of a really strange situation. It was just that they were just getting to the hospital until everything faded to black. And I can remember just during the night asking for my mom in the ICU, I asked  where’s my parents. I remember saying that all I need is my mother’s love. That’s all I need to heal. Please let her come. And that was all I was thinking. All I wanted was to be with my parents. All I wanted was to be nurtured with love, but to be honest, there was like no rational thought around it other than Whoa. Something is going on.

Sue: [00:04:26] Yeah. I can imagine. And thinking that your patients would be able to come for [00:04:30] you and support you in some way. What happened next? Because I know the medical profession were a little bit struggling to work out what was actually happening.

Felipe: [00:04:38] Yeah. So that the next day my father told me what actually happened after everything faded to black for me. And I was just there in the ICU and the cardiologist and then the neurologists were just doing all the exams and nothing was showing until past six hours I grabbed my testicles. And the cardiologist says, now I know what’s going on. It turns out that when you were about to die, the male behaviour that happens is that you grabbed your testicles, like as a last resort. And by that, the cardiologist knew that I was having a stroke. Something that they didn’t consider because it didn’t show on the exam. And that’s not something that you expect for an 11 year old. When he realized that this was what was going on he talked with my father and he tells him  Juan, this is what’s going on. Felipe is suffering a stroke. The standards for medicine says that after three hours, the chances of someone surviving, even an adult. Are not that big, but we have to do this procedure. We have to take the clot out of his brain. We have to do this operation. There is a 97% chance that the artery burst. There’s 90% chance that he’s going to be in vegetable state. But if we don’t do it is a hundred percent chance that [00:06:00] he’s going to die. So what do you want us to do?

Sue: [00:06:03] What a decision that your family had to make.

Felipe: [00:06:05] Yeah, for sure. I think at that point, my father, many years later told me that that was the point where he understood the spirituality in that specific moment that you have to let go where you have to trust the higher wisdom of life. And for them, for my parents, it was like a really intense moment to make that decision and to trust. The 3% chances of me being here.

Sue: [00:06:31] So what happened next?

Felipe: [00:06:34] After I woke up the next day recovery started, I was in a wheelchair like with no feeling from my left side. The approach that medicine has to this type of recovery is like traditional physical therapy. So from there on, I started doing therapy from day one. After 10 days, they discharged me and I went home and then little by little, I started integrating myself back to life. It took me three months. Doctors said that it would take me a year to walk again, but three months later I was already doing my first steps to be honest, the great motivation for me was playing football again. Like, all I cared about was get up, kick the ball, play with my friends. Like there was no reasoning around what happened at that point. Like I said, when you were 11, there’s an innocence [00:07:30] that everything is just like a game. You were like, okay, I can’t walk, but I want to walk and they want to play. So I’m just going to do everything I can to play again.

And that’s how life started again, like as a game. To walk again, to learn how to tie my shoe laces, to learn how to play PlayStation, learn how to do everything, but with a paralysis, which means that you need to develop the sense of observation that it’s going to get you to do the things that now you’re not able to do because the world is designed for full functional motor skills. So after that, recovery started and life started to get back on track in a way.

Sue: [00:08:14] What you were beginning to do was, as you say, use your observational skills to work out how you could adapt. I’m imagining- to the change situation that you found yourself in and your desire to get back, to play football. So having that purpose was helping to motivate you to want to do the physical therapy.

Felipe: [00:08:34] Exactly. That’s it. Having a purpose rooted from that innocence. And then when I started my teenage years that in essence faded and the voids and all the gaps that I had, started to come to surface. Because as you grow up, you start identifying with your mind and with the conditions and you start comparing yourself with other [00:09:00] people, your hormones, and the growing up start rising. You start seeing that people start getting into relationships that your friends are going out dancing, that they actually can go out and dance salsa. And this feeling of I’m less. It started developing in my mind during my teenage years. And it was the process that took me 10, 12 years to really come to terms with it, to shift my perception, to understand that life is unique for everyone, and that there’s no better or worse.

It’s just your unique story, your unique path. But as I grew up, there were certainly a lot of gaps in my own self image and my own self love. That then I realized that this is the work I had to do. If I wanted to empower myself to live a life. That it’s fulfilled and not play the victim role, which is not going to take you anywhere.

Sue: [00:09:59] Hi, it’s Sue again. And if you’re enjoying this episode so far, you’ll probably want to make sure you listen to other episodes. So go on over to our website, accesstoinspiration.org and subscribe to our newsletter. You can do this at the foot of the homepage. That way you can keep up to date with all the new episodes when they are published.

The latest research I read is that there are over 2 million podcasts that have been registered on Google. And what helps us to get noticed is if you [00:10:30] tell other people about this podcast, so go on over, pay it forward and tell someone else how access to inspiration has inspired you so that they may get the benefit too. They will be glad that you did. Now back to Felipe.

So you had a defining sense of how to just stop being the victim and not play that role to actually take life in your own hands and create it in a way that would work for you.

Felipe: [00:10:57] What I remember and now that I’m 30, is that for such a long time in my life, I went to bed wishing life had been different. Just like every single night. That was my thought, like, why me? Why did this happen to me? Why, why not someone else, man, it’s 7 billion of us. It had to happen to me. And that process of understanding that this is life is, not that you like it or not. It is what it is. And it’s your decision to make the most out of it.

And guess what, if you don’t, it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, we’re all going to die. Life is finite. And it depends exclusively up to you and your relationship with your mind, how you deal with life and how you make phase two, everything that life puts in front of you. And at the end, every single person has gone through difficult things. And it doesn’t mean that my things were more difficult than yours, then I’m more special because I survived something. And in your [00:12:00] case, it wasn’t that bad. No, it doesn’t work like that for everybody. There’s something that defined their life, things happen that are gonna set the tone for everything that happens in your life.

So if you don’t train your mind, if you don’t understand the nature of the mind and you don’t understand that it is your responsibility to study yourself, to build self awareness, to go out there and seek for answers that guess what? They’re not gonna pop up in front of your face. You have to seek, you have to look, you have to find your community.

You gotta find the information that is not obvious. That is gonna relate to your specific story. There’s not like a cookie molder where one fits all. Everyone is absolutely unique. I believe it is about your own self awareness and the knowledge you have about yourself. And reframing situations to shift from victim to empowerment from why did this happen to what do I have to learn and what can I do with these lessons to help people, things that maybe I have seen because of my own experience. It’s not that you survived is what do you learn? And what do you do with that story, that is going to add the value. To your community, to your family, to your workplace.

Sue: [00:13:27] So now that you’ve got that insight Felipe, [00:13:30] and it sounds like that’s a real pivotal change of perspective for you, how did you then take that renewed focus and mindset that you had and move it forward. So what are you doing now that you weren’t doing before? How are you bringing that to life?

Felipe: [00:13:49] The pivotal point came when I was 21. That’s almost 10 years ago. I was living in Argentina. I had moved away from home to do my college studies down in Argentina. And this was the darkest point of my life. This was the point of my life, where I self loathed myself more, where I had the less love for myself. And after an incident where I punched a mirror in an alcohol tantrum, I used to drink a lot of alcohol in a way I think to peace down all the negative thoughts and all the goals I had in my mind, I punched a mirror with my non paralyzed hand. And I got 11 stitches on my hand and the next morning I woke up and then like, how stupid is this that I hurt myself. Can you imagine if I cut my other hand and then my other hand is busted as well. And at that point, that day I made a decision. It was made. I can’t go on like this, no matter what. Now this is the first day of my new life.

I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but. I can’t go on living on like this [00:15:00] and then the world, the universe, the galaxy, however you want to call it that energy. That is everything is started putting people in my path, books, in my path, conferences, community of people that share techniques and exercises for me to try out and test. And I started just like testing. I find something new. So for example, someone recommended yoga. I do yoga. I try it. If it makes it better, I keep doing it. If not, they try something else. And then my life at that point began to be that, to seek for knowledge, to understand the nature of the mind. Like I said, And those practices come with a lot of reading, a lot of meditation doing volunteer work, where you are confronted with other realities that are going to shift your perspective to your own reality, to something of gratitude.

Because with all my difficulties in life and without the obstacles, I’m a really lucky person. I have a loving family. I have a loving community. I have so much around me and I was stuck in my own mind. Always looking at the glass half empty. But when you meditate, when you go out, when you connect, when you do volunteer work, you start shifting slowly, your perspective, your brain’s default network, which is the thoughts that are reinforced and reinforced and reinforced slowly start shifting when you infuse gratitude [00:16:30] into your life, your brain starts behaving differently.

Sue: [00:16:34] It’s a fantastic turnaround that you’re describing there, Felipe and having hit rock bottom that you moved forward from there by getting a new perspective. As you now, look back at those 30 years of your life, what would you say are your strengths that you identify that you have now?

Felipe: [00:16:53] For sure? My biggest strength is self awareness. Like really knowing myself being really honest about what are you passionate about? What are you good at? What resonates with you? What doesn’t resonate with you slowly starts putting you in paths where you’re able to shine for me personally, it’s, I’m a people person, to be honest and in business and work, I’ve always been. Someone that talks to people to get the most out of people. Because I come to realize that everybody has problems that stops them from vibrating at their highest level. And I’ve been through all of those mental processes. And I can simplify things because like I said, in the beginning, I had to hack my way through life because the world is not necessarily designed to do everything with one hand.

So for me, this strength is really connecting with people and holding space for people, for them to express themselves and in a work environment to get the most out of people’s talents. [00:18:00] And on a personal level is just connecting with people and building community.

Sue: [00:18:06] Well, I think your testament to how you and I were first in touch with one another Felipe, when you reached out to me and I’m so grateful that you did. As you look forward for the next say you know, five, 10 years of your life. What are some of the aspirations what’s next for you?

Felipe: [00:18:22] My physical recovery is still a thing, but unlike 10 years ago, where I was only fixed on the end result. Now I learned how to love the process and that I apply it to everything in my life. Currently I’m launching a business with actually the friend who was with me when I was 11. He is my business partner today. And for me, looking forward to the future is just doing things that I resonate with, but not get fixed on the end result because the end result is going to pass away quickly. I learned how to love the process and that’s something that I wake up every single day, completely in love with just going out there, adding value, using my imagination and my talents to build teams, to create solutions that are gonna make people’s lives easier to make their job easier. So for me, it’s really about building teams where we can create a process that is going to add value to people’s lives. Whether that’d be a company, whether that’d be [00:19:30] going, doing volunteer work, like I told you, I was doing last week. Just like enjoy the process. Enjoy every day of life, wake up with gratitude and empathy. Understanding that every single person is doing the best they can, to the best of their current understanding of their life.

Sue: [00:19:49] Well, I think you take such a measured view of things Felipe. I just love how you describe how to get the most out of one’s life by really just enjoying every day in the process. If we’ve got a listener that says struggling to cope with a challenge, it may be the current lockdown situation or COVID or, or anything for that matter. What would be your advice to them? How might they move forwards?

Felipe: [00:20:11] Seek for knowledge on the nature of the mind, understand the relationship that human beings and each one of us has between the perception of the eye. That is in your head that believes that there is an experience that it’s owned. You know, you say, I own my body or mind. There’s like this schizophrenia between the mind and the rest of reality in which when you look at it closely, it’s all about how you condition that idea of who I am. And when you understand with amazing authors out there that have written so much great things about the mind and about reality, you really start seeing life in a different way, [00:21:00] and you start reconfigurating your own relationship with yourself in a way that you understand that the mind is a tool at the service of life. And not life at the service of the mind. When you read. And when you seek knowledge, knowledge is not the end goal in itself, but it is like if you’re walking through a forest and you come across a river that you can’t walk by, but there’s this little canoe that you can get on paddle to the other side and then keep your journey. Well knowledge is that little canoe. It will help you cross the river, but once you cross it, you don’t get the canoe on your back and carry it as a heavy load do you. You just leave it there. And that’s what helps me come to terms and redefine my life. Look for knowledge that will infuse a new perspective into your life.

Sue: [00:21:55] Well, I hope that taking your analogy of the little canoe Felipe that the last few minutes of our conversation have acted in that regard for our listener and that they may review and reflect on their experiences in a different way. It’s been wonderful to speak to you today and to hear about your life and how you look at the life. It’s really inspiring. So thank you so much for your time.

Felipe: [00:22:18] No. Sue thank you so much for having me. I’m really grateful to have connected with you. You’re an absolute light in this world and thank you for all the work you do. And for giving a [00:22:30] platform for people with unique stories, to share them for people to take little nuggets that may help them in their own lives.

Sue: [00:22:39] Thanks for listening today. Felipe’s personal challenges really resonated with me, particularly the point about helping others to help yourself. Let us know how it inspired you by connecting with us on Facebook and Instagram at Access to Inspiration or on our LinkedIn page. Next week. My guest will be Lory Mitchell Wingate, who is senior vice-president and chief operating officer at UCAR – the university corporation for atmospheric research. She will explain why she left a high level job to backpack across America and how that shifted her career. I hope you can join me then.