How my girls’ trip to Atlanta became a massive post-stroke breakthrough

Since having a stroke, I never traveled without my parents. But on a girls' trip to Atlanta, the city welcomed me with open arms.

Harshada and her friends take a selfie before the Taylor Swift concert at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Photograph courtesy of Harshada Rajani

I glanced at my wheelchair stowed away in the trunk and took a deep breath as my friend Setu pulled her SUV out of the driveway. We exchanged wide-eyed grins, still in disbelief that this trip was actually happening. We were headed to Atlanta for a highly anticipated, whirlwind girls’ weekend. It was going to be my first trip in fifteen years without my parents. It all started when my brother and sister-in-law somehow nabbed, for my 38th birthday, the most coveted item of this decade: floor seats to Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour in Atlanta. And it turned into an empowering, disability-friendly girls’ trip made seamless by Atlanta’s accessibility and springtime vibes.

I first heard Swift’s music in a frigid and soulless hospital room in 2009. I was 23 years old, a medical student, and had just sustained a stroke. In an instant, I went from being an active young future doctor to a lifelong, dependent patient. I was a wreck of tears and desperation, but my family and friends refused to stop filling my life with love, laughter, and music. One evening, Setu and some girlfriends played their new favorite song for me: “Love Story.” The catchy tune sputtering out of the hospital’s ancient stereo seemed to warm us all up a bit. Now, fifteen years later, I had the opportunity to see Taylor Swift perform “Love Story” live, just a few hours away from my home in Charlotte.

But I was torn. Since my stroke, I’d never traveled anywhere without my parents because I needed help getting ready and transferring out of my wheelchair. I had become accustomed to living this odd, adult life, one that would be wildly unrecognizable to the lives of my peers. Either my parents brought me to events and parties or I skipped them altogether. There’s nothing my parents wouldn’t do for my happiness, but I felt selfish dragging them to Atlanta. And I was definitely not skipping this either. I wished I could be normal and just go with my friends.

My friends had always offered to help me in the past, but I could never let myself cross that line with them: it would take them from a friend to caregiver, irreversibly. They would be giving me something I could never repay. All I could ever give them was my company—an empathetic ear, a welcoming shoulder, and an earnest smile. Just me. But I would have to take so much from them. I felt my companionship wasn’t worth all the baggage that came with it, so I shielded my friends from the burden of me. It would scare them away, wouldn’t it? Even so, I wondered: wouldn’t this concert be infinitely more fun with my girls?

One day, Setu mentioned that she might drive down to Atlanta the same weekend I was going so we could have a mini-reunion with our other friends who lived there. Before I knew what I was doing, I heard myself asking in a tiny voice, “How about I just come with you?” It was barely above a whisper. But her face broke into a smile, and she exclaimed,  “We’ve been waiting ten years for you to ask!”

Harshada and her friends got matching tattoos at Southern Star during their trip to Atlanta.

Photograph courtesy of Harshada Rajani

After a few weeks of butterflies flapping haphazardly in my stomach—and those of my parents—Setu and I hit the road to Atlanta. We stayed in Midtown, close to all the restaurants and hot spots we planned to hit. We met up with our other girlfriends and spent the afternoon in our accessible hotel suite at the Midtown Marriott Suites, sipping on margaritas and trying on each other’s clothes. Just like old times.

They had no problem taking care of me, and surprisingly, I had no problem being taken care of by them. They were already discussing where we would fly to for our next trip. I couldn’t believe how much time I’d wasted, refusing to let them in. Whether they were cutting up my food, handing me my toothbrush, or helping me into the car, it all felt natural and normal. It felt like love. To commemorate the new chapter of our story, we went to Southern Star Tattoo and got the matching tattoos that had always been our collective goal.

Everything in Atlanta felt seamless: a massive rarity when it comes to navigating a wheelchair in an unfamiliar city. I didn’t have to worry about missing curb cut-outs, ramps or accessible bathrooms. Midtown Atlanta spent millions on development and renovation in the last 25 years, and by law, all those updates comply with the accessibility standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Many cities I’ve visited are older and accessibility is inconsistent—the barrier that typically discourages me and other disabled people from venturing out of our homes and into the community at all. Atlanta’s investment in accessibility made it possible for me not just to venture out in the city, but to really live my full life.

We grabbed pre-show drinks and an early dinner at Bulla. Then, dressed in exorbitant amounts of shine, sequins, and Swift’s signature red lipstick, we joined the sea of bejeweled and screaming fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. We loved every moment of it, but sharing nostalgic, wistful glances with my friends as Swift sang “Love Story,” our hospital song, was the beautiful, full-circle moment that I almost missed out on.

Photograph courtesy of Harshada Rajani

A friend helps Harshada with her lipstick

Photograph courtesy of Harshada Rajani

Afterwards, we grabbed late-night Taco Bell, changed into our pajamas, and sat down to gossip and eat. Such simple, normal things I hadn’t done in fifteen years. A late-night gossip session with the girls and junk food—I didn’t want anything more.

With my face still frozen in a grin, I glanced around the room at my friends. In the song “peace,” Taylor Swift sings, “Would it be enough / if I could never give you peace?” She wonders if she is enough for the people in her life. I had let my friends in, let them help me and they weren’t going anywhere. My company, my presence was worth the effort. I was worth the effort. I was enough.

Harshada Rajani is a former medical student-turned-freelance writer, nonprofit cofounder, and disability advocate based in Charlotte, North Carolina.