Schaumburg man speaks of 'miraculous' recovery after bloody attack
Sitting before a Hindu shrine at the Shree Jalaram Mandir in Hoffman Estates, Rajesh Thakkar sings a hymn in his native Gujarati with relative ease despite the metal plate in his jaw.
The words flow strongly and confidently as it's a song of praise he has sung dozens of times.
This peaceful image of Thakkar is a jarring contrast from a year ago when the Schaumburg man lay in a hospital bed fighting for his life.
On March 29, 2010, Thakkar suffered a brutal attack at the hands of a hammer-wielding teenage girl who authorities allege was trying to kill him.
Thakkar slipped into a coma and was hospitalized for two months following the attack.
He lost his right eye.
His jaw was shattered, his speech compromised.
Yet the 59-year-old's long road to recovery has been nothing short of miraculous.
The blows to his skull that left deep gashes on his head did not cause permanent brain damage, his doctors say.
Thakkar, who has not given any interviews since the attack, broke his silence to speak exclusively with the Daily Herald about his recovery and his thoughts about his attacker.
"I am angry," Thakkar said. "Eight months at home (with) no money."
Thakkar was a clerk at an Elgin gas station for eight years.
He said he feels as though his attacker took his hands along with his eye and his speech, because he no longer can work to provide for his family.
Though he tries not to think about what happened that day -- or recognize the anniversary of the attack -- he also "cannot forget."
In the months after his release from Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Thakkar's life has been consumed with physical, occupational and speech therapies.
His daily routine now involves taking care of his two grandchildren, visiting with family, friends and occasionally the doctors and nurses who saved his life, and going to temple daily.
He prays for only one thing -- for his life to return to normal.
Thakkar said at times he wishes his attacker would suffer as he has so she may realize the pain he went through. But ultimately, he said, he wants only justice.
"If you commit a crime, you should be punished," Thakkar said. "But what was my crime?"
A typical Monday night shift behind him, Thakkar returns to his Schaumburg apartment building shortly before midnight on March 29, 2010.
He moves slowly due to his arthritic knees.
As always, he pauses to check his mailbox before heading up the stairs to the second-floor apartment where his wife, Gita, awaits him. A 15-year-old girl he's never spoken to hovers sullenly at the door of her family's first-floor unit, avoiding eye contact with him.
Moments after his gaze turns to the mailbox before him, a blinding pain crashes upon his head.
A hand scrabbles for the front of his shirt collar, grabs it, and pulls him around so he's now facing his attacker. She rains a series of hammer blows to his head and face. He drops to the floor in anguish.
Semiconscious, he feels her grab his arms and start to pull him down the hallway toward the back door. She is roughly 5 feet, 5 inches tall -- almost as big as himself.
Thakkar puts his hand to his head. Blind in one eye, he sees blood with the other.
He believes he's about to die and he prays.
Outside the building, he realizes she is pulling him toward the apartment complex's decorative pond. He struggles, making enough noise to alert at least one person still awake in the building.
"Hey, what's going on?" shouts a 27-year-old man from the window of his third-floor apartment.
The girl mutters something. She puts Thakkar down and dashes inside the building.
Wracked with pain, Thakkar manages to get up. He walks around the building and through the front door, leaving a trail of blood on the walls and carpet. He passes the closed door of the girl's apartment as he makes his way toward the staircase and staggers up.
Finally, at the landing outside his own door, he pounds, unable to speak. The thumps terrify his wife until by his groans she realizes it is him. She opens the door and he collapses in the doorway.
He would know nothing more for weeks.
Thakkar lay in a partially induced coma at Lutheran General's trauma center, undergoing multiple surgeries to repair skull fractures. A metal plate and screws were installed in his smashed jaw.
His damaged eye was removed, leaving a shrunken socket beneath a closed lid.
Dozens of Thakkar's relatives from the Northwest suburbs stood vigil day and night at his bedside. His brother, Vijay Thakkar of Schaumburg, said during those dark days he had doubts Thakkar would pull through.
But he did, albeit slowly.
Thakkar then began an intensive few weeks of rehabilitation. Finally released from Lutheran General on May 28, he began outpatient therapy for his still-impaired speech and motor skills.
Since December, Thakkar has been able to drive again. He takes himself between his newly rented residence in Schaumburg and Alexian Rehabilitation Hospital in Elk Grove Village for therapy.
Vijay Thakkar believes he's almost back to normal except for his speech, his endurance to walk long distances and, of course, the loss of his eye.
Returning to Lutheran General last week to visit the doctors and therapists who helped him, Thakkar is barely off the elevator before he's greeted with hugs and laughter by those he calls his new family.
Speech therapist Colleen Summe began working with him as soon as he came out of his coma. She focused not only on the muscle weaknesses affecting his speech but also on cognitive abilities that he initially lost.
"He was basically unable to communicate his wants and needs," Summe said.
David Ronin, the Lutheran General physician who oversaw Thakkar's rehabilitation, said his recovery ranks among the greatest he's seen.
"He is completely functional," Ronin said.
Ronin credits the transformation to Thakkar's can-do spirit and his family support.
Vijay Thakkar credits his brother's great mental strength and the constant prayers of loved ones.
"If it were someone with a weak mind, he couldn't survive this," Vijay said.
Yet, in Thakkar's mind, he won't be truly complete until he is working again.
Thakkar speaks fluently in Gujarati, but he is working specifically on improving the English needed to reclaim his old job. He reapplied last month at the gas station but was turned down because of his slow, halting speech.
At his last outpatient speech therapy session, Thakkar was shown photos of household objects. He named them easily, but had trouble describing how they're used. Asked what one does with a coffee cup, he said, "milk."
Stephanie Stanton, outpatient speech pathologist at Alexian Rehabilitation Hospital, said Thakkar's progress appears to have leveled off. She considers his English speech to be about 75 to 80 percent intelligible, but both of them are aiming for more. She scheduled their next meeting in two months.
"He's very motivated and getting back to work is his main goal," Stanton said. "You don't see that all the time."
Not getting his job back was a blow to Thakkar and his family. He relies on Medicare to cover his medical bills, and he and Gita are living off what little savings they have, the support of relatives and Gita's part-time job baby-sitting for an Indian couple in their Schaumburg neighborhood.
Thakkar once ran a thriving grocery business with his four brothers in the small town outside of Ahmedabad in the eastern Indian state of Gujarat.
Started 150 years ago by his grandfather, the business was left under Thakkar's care once his brothers started independent businesses in 1986.
Thakkar sold the store and immigrated to the United States in 2002 to make a better life for himself and his family.
Now a citizen, he intends to someday sponsor his son's immigration to the United States and help his two daughters get established here.
"If I could work today, I would," Thakkar said.
Police and prosecutors believe robbery was the motive for the attack on Thakkar. They have charged the girl as a juvenile with armed robbery, attempted murder and aggravated battery.
The girl's 18-year-old sister was convicted of obstruction of justice for trying to clean up the bloody evidence of the attack. She was sentenced to four months in jail and two years of probation.
For his part, Thakkar said he doesn't want to get involved in the case against the girl, now 16, though prosecutors have asked him to testify.
Fearing reprisal from the girl's relatives, Thakkar's wife moved a week after his attack and has refused to talk about it openly. The couple now lives in a duplex in Schaumburg.
Prosecutors have said they intend to ask for the girl's transfer to adult court. But the case has barely progressed in juvenile court this past year. The girl has been regularly hospitalized and evaluated for behavioral and psychological issues stemming from her conduct in custody.
"If she's not stable, we can't do anything," Cook County Judge Richard Walsh told the attorneys at her last hearing.
She's next in court Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Thakkar is making the best of his new reality.
Vijay Thakkar said his brother's aggressive attitude to life has somewhat diminished, but he is still resilient.
"He was like a tiger before, but now he's like a goat," he said. "He likes to do something everyday. He doesn't like staying at home. In his mind, always, nothing is impossible."