May 24th, 2011
10:35 AM ET
In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle – injury, illness or other hardship –- they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn’t know they possessed. This week Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta introduces us to Matt Courson, whose life was changed by an ATV accident. But this week, he walked across a college stage to accept a diploma.
On April 23, 2006, my life was forever changed. Before this date, I was an avid adventurer with a love of sports and all things outdoors. My mornings were filled with long runs, and I often spent my afternoons playing games of catch. I was a college student, an athlete, and the youngest son of three boys. Watching my brothers grow up with athletic backgrounds, I wanted to be just like them. I lived each and every day as if there was always a tomorrow. With little care in the world, I truly thought I was invincible.
Late one spring evening in 2006, I learned a very valuable lesson – invincibility is not always a reality. On this cool night, my life took a gut-wrenching turn. I was a sophomore in college at the University of Little Rock and my life was about to be turned upside down.
Like a typical Arkansan, I hopped on my four-wheeler that evening to ride a quarter of a mile down the road to visit a friend. I had ridden four-wheelers since I was 4 years old, but this ride turned out to be unlike any other. As I pulled out of my driveway, the next thing I remember was being on my back, unable to move staring at the stars. I had ridden my four-wheeler off a 20-foot embankment. The landing knocked me out for a few moments. When I awoke, I felt an intense pain on one of my arms and soon noticed that it was completely covered with fire ants. I slapped off the ants and began to cry for help.
Unable to get up or even move, I knew that I was in a bad situation. I just kept thinking about how I was an athlete and nothing like this could possibly happen to me. I don't get hurt... nothing can hurt me. The hours began to pass and the moon began to move across the sky. I was in an incredible amount of pain and I began to pray to God. I confessed to God that I had not lived my life to the fullest up to that point; I hadn't been the best person that Matt Courson could be. I told God that from that moment on I was going to change my life and live up to my potential. I lay in the embankment all night, enduring the 50-degree temperature and fighting for my life. As the sun arose in the distance, I continued to yell for help. That was when I heard the words, "Where are you?" I replied, "I'm down here, I'm down here!" The man then yelled, "Don't move, I'm going to get help."
A fireman had heard my cry for help. I was soon transported to University of Arkansas Medical Sciences Hospital, where I underwent an eight-hour surgery to repair my spine. My injury was classified as a compression fracture, meaning that my spine had been shattered by the trauma. After the surgery, I remember lying in my hospital bed and asking my doctor, “Why can’t I move? What’s going on?” I’ll never forget his devastating response. He told me that the injury I had suffered was impossible to recover from and therefore I would never walk again.
I never knew that one sentence could change the rest of my life. From that moment on, I worked tirelessly each and every day to get back on my feet. I was going to beat this. I was going to defy the impossible. However, nothing would have been possible without my my family and friends. My father is my hero. Despite working 40-hour weeks, he came home each and every night ready to help me work out. I hope that one day I can be half the father that he is. When I was at my worst, my family and friends were at their best. I owe everything to them for believing in me.
Over the past few years, I have worked out every single day in an effort to learn how to walk again. I moved to Baltimore to do therapy at Kennedy Krieger Institute in 2008. I enrolled at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in the fall of 2008. Balancing a full therapy schedule and a full class load was difficult, but it made me stronger and I was more determined than ever.
My progression at Kennedy Krieger Institute started off with the wiggle of a toe. Months later, I was able to move my leg and raise it up. Then, I began standing up bearing my own weight. Finally, I got to the point where I could take steps with a walker. I remember the first words I told my mentor Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, who is the president of UMBC. I told Dr. Hrabowski that I was going to walk across stage one day to accept my diploma. That day has finally arrived. Taking those steps across stage, I know that I am not alone. Without my family, friends, therapists, and all those who have supported me, none of this would be possible.
I have learned so much about myself over the past few years. I have learned to always remember the curveballs that life throws our way. We all go through tough times in our life, but we are defined by how we respond to these struggles. I am continuing to define myself each and every day. I continue to get a little more motivated and a little stronger in everything that I do. I will never settle and I will forever continue to strive to reach my fullest potential.
Ever since my accident, I have relayed the message of my life to others through public speaking engagements. I hope that the challenges that I have had to overcome will make a positive impact on the lives of others. I've had the opportunity to speak to numerous groups of individuals. My message to these people is that we all have challenges and impossibilities in our lives that seem to difficult to overcome. These challenges may be cancer, addiction, or paralysis. However, with hard work, strong faith, and sheer determination, we can overcome these impossibilities.
On Monday May 23, 2011, I proclaimed to the world that "Nothing Is Impossible." I made this proclamation, not with words, but with a few simple steps.
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.