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May 24th, 2011
10:35 AM ET

Human Factor – A life reclaimed in tiny steps

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.


soundoff (29 Responses)
  1. Christina Lazarek

    Gave me chills reading! Anything is possible with family, friends, and determination! Congrats on how far you have come!

    May 24, 2011 at 12:53 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Brannon

      A couple months ago I flew from Denver to Little Rock with this young mans father. I don't know him personally, but from all I have heard he is an amazing young man. Based on the conversation I had with his father, and those in my community who attend chucrch with them, the family showed great strength and support to help their son reclaim his life. Great family, great story.

      May 24, 2011 at 16:33 | Report abuse |
    • Samar

      I had created two itandicel surveys with the purpose of obtaining 10 responses for each from two different groups. I didn't use the Text/Translation Settings link since the surveys were in the same language. Is there a way I can combine the reports for these?Rachel on Thu, Aug 18 11 at 8:47 am

      November 14, 2012 at 11:07 | Report abuse |
    • Synyster

      Thank you, Joey! I learned a few thgnis I didn't know.This article reads like it came from a mature expert — and obviously, Joey, you are both mature and expert! Your efforts can make life better for victims of bullies and at the same time, make better human beings of fellow students who, instead of looking the other way in discomfort, will know how to take effective action. I love the whole school approach. Very powerful!

      November 16, 2012 at 01:47 | Report abuse |
  2. Beth

    What an amazing story. My heartfelt congratulations, and all the best with your career and health. God bless!

    May 24, 2011 at 13:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. The_Mick

    As someone who came from the poorest family on my block but who felt great pride in 1973 when I walked across that same stage at UMBC as the first college graduate in my extended family, I congratulate you Matt on overcoming the odds you faced!

    May 24, 2011 at 13:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Ruth

    I have a friend who survived an airplane crash over twenty years ago. She was told she would never walk again. She is walking and has new movement all the time. Never give up.

    May 24, 2011 at 13:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. abby

    God bless you! Nothing is impossible.

    May 24, 2011 at 13:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Ben

    Wow. This was yesterday! Matt walking across the stage was probably the highlight of the ceremony imo, we all gave him a standing ovation. We learned a lot more from him walking across the stage than from the keynote speaker.

    His accomplishments put the rest of ours to shame, Congrats to you Matt!!

    May 24, 2011 at 15:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Wes

    this guy is amazing. never give up.

    May 24, 2011 at 15:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Medical Care

    I'm curious who paid for all his medical care, including all that physical therapy. Did my tax dollars pay for his recovery from a personal choice to engage in an unsafe activity? I've known lots of good, hard-working individuals who developed some disease or were injured because of substandard living conditions (because they couldn't afford safer conditions), that couldn't even get basic medical care that could have cured them because they couldn't afford such care. I don't doubt that Matt worked hard, but there were also many medical bills that had to be paid for him to reach this point. Why don't we, as a country, focus on that at least as much as we focus on the survivors' hard work?

    May 24, 2011 at 15:25 | Report abuse | Reply
    • xxsevensxx

      Accidents can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime, doing anything. Any time you leave your house, you're in danger. What you're suggesting – putting a limit on the care given to accident victims – is atrocious. May you one day find yourself in his shoes so you can experience the full weight of your own words.

      May 24, 2011 at 16:27 | Report abuse |
    • jbbbb

      I think you're probably a bad person MedicalCare. You read this story and go immediately to what it MAY have cost you. So we should all sit on our couches in our parents' basements so that we never do anything that may cause us injury in case it somehow trickles down to taking 50 cents out of YOUR pocket? I'm sorry for those in your life who's happiness you taint with your pessimism.

      May 24, 2011 at 16:53 | Report abuse |
    • Athlete for life

      I rarely post on these blogs and virtually never respond to individual posts, but these remarks indicate extraordinary selfishness and outright meanness. Virtually everything we do has risk, almost every sport has risk, life is full ot it. I'd sure rather my tax money (if indeed that was even the case here) go towards helping an ambitious and no doubt vibrant person overcome daunting odds than be thrown away on so many of the things that the federal government spends money on. Please get a life and try a little compassion in your outlook on life.

      May 24, 2011 at 16:57 | Report abuse |
    • Neal_T

      Everything is all about you... There is nothing in this story which indicates that any taxpayer money went toward this person's rehabilitation. Even if taxpayer money was used, a person could get hit by a car walking across the street or could be involved in a car accident. This inspiring young man simply had an accident while riding an ATV instead of driving in a car. People like you make me ill. Your selfishness is breathtaking and you ought to be ashamed of yourself.

      May 24, 2011 at 17:16 | Report abuse |
    • Nell Freeman

      Your tax dollar did not pay one penny of Matt's expenses!! Funds for medical expenses were raised by family, friends and his church! His church and friends had fund raisers at the church. There were concerts and friends cooked turkeys and pork loins for several years at Easter time and other occasions. His family has given their all, money, time,encouragement and love to help Matt recover. With God all things are possible!

      May 29, 2011 at 13:53 | Report abuse |
  9. Erin

    This story is so inspirational!! Keep moving forward!

    May 24, 2011 at 15:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Barb Gould

    Thank you for sharing your story. You have turned a light on for me. I know that you will continue to grow as the kind of person whomakes everyone he touches glad that he did.

    May 24, 2011 at 16:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. the_dude

    This is a nice, hearwarming story and all but I would bet this guy's situation was helped out by having a rich family and not having to worry about finances. To have a horrible accident happen is one thing but to not have to ever worry about your medical care or that someone is paying for your college so you can spend most of your time rehabilitating. I know of people who didn't come from a nice background, have a bad accident and have to rely on the govt for any assistance (minimal as it is) at all. It would be a differebnt story all toghther without the rich family and not having to worry about money.

    May 24, 2011 at 16:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. unknown

    To Medical Care;

    I am very sure that his medical care bills were out the window. He comes from a little town in McGehee, Arkansas where this community has donated to some of his progress. His family and friends have a fund raiser every year selling gourmet smoked meats and try to raise mney for him. I would rather my tax dollars pay for this type of recovery than for rehabbing every crack head in the USA and there are plenty that go to rehab on our tax dollars.

    May 24, 2011 at 16:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Jessica

    Kelly, So you say that the victim needs to be removed from the school? How about we get the little thug thrown out of the school so it's safe for the non-bullies. You would rather the bullies rule the roost?

    Every child deserves a safe and threat free learning environment!

    May 24, 2011 at 17:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Amazed

    'Medical Care' – you should be ashamed of yourself...and 'the dude'...you as well. Matt doesn't come from a so called 'rich' family...but a loving and caring family who would do anything and everything to help in his recovery. He also comes from an amazing community that came together to help him in being able to receive therapy from some of the best in the field. But even with that said – no one can match the willpower and determination that he has had throughout this entire process. Matt's battle is not over....but he has made significant steps in completely beating the odds...and he has always stopped to thank and appreciate all of those that have helped him along the way. If we all could be 1/100th of the person Matt Courson is, the world would be a much better place.

    May 24, 2011 at 21:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Dr Bill Toth

    The Impossible just takes a little bit longer. Live with Intentiion, DrBilltoth.com/blog

    May 25, 2011 at 06:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Robert Stephens

    Question, puzzling; how and what happened to drive off the embankment? He had long experience with the 4 wheelers, knew the terrain, how? I am puzzled out of intrigue. That is left out of the story and is a key. Keep up the will and resolve, lad. Good work in recovery!

    May 25, 2011 at 06:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Medical Care

    I don't begrudge Matt the effort he's put into recovery. But he chose to ride a 4-wheeler (not the safest activity in the world) and apparently has a caring family who was able to assist him.

    My point is that not everybody has a caring family that is able to provide that level of assistance, and yet our current medical care system assumes that either you do and that aren't worth caring for – and that is absolutely appalling to me!

    @xxsevensxx – Where exactly did I suggest "putting a limit on the care given to accident victims"?

    @jbbbb – I actually think EVERYONE deserves quality medical care – not just those who have employers who provide good insurance or those who come from families and communities that pick and choose who to support.

    @Athlete for life – I served on active duty in the Marine Corps during the Desert Storm and I've done frequent charity work with many organizations, including the Special Olympics my entire adult life. Anyone who actually knows me, knows I'm far from selfish.

    @NealT – I didn't say that the story said taxpayer money went to pay for his care. I ASKED whether it did, because it struck me as a gaping hole in the story.

    @the_dude – "... but to not have to ever worry about your medical care or that someone is paying for your college so you can spend most of your time rehabilitating. I know of people who didn't come from a nice background, have a bad accident and have to rely on the govt for any assistance (minimal as it is) at all. " – EXACTLY!!! I had a family friend, who was laid off from her job – less that hour after her health insurance expired she had the first of many grand mal seizures. Because she no longer had insurance and the specialist doctor got paid a premium everytime he had to come to the emergency room, he didn't admit her to the hospital. She was having 3 and 4 seizures a week! Her mother fought hard to get her seen by another doctor, but it took over two months, by which time her cancer had progressed beyond any possible recovery. She passed away about a month later. She had been a contributing member of society, had been a hard worker, had served honorably in the US Army, and hadn't been engaged in any potentially dangerous activities. Yet we as a society FAILED her!

    @unknown – "His family and friends have a fund raiser every year selling gourmet smoked meats and try to raise mney[sic] for him." Thank you. This information should have been included in the original story.

    @Amazed – Actually, anyone who thinks that someone needing medical care, whether due to an accident or disease, should have to depend on "... an amazing community..." coming "... together to help him in being able to receive therapy from some of the best in the field." should be ashamed of themselves! In this day and age every human being should have access to quality medical care that isn't dependent on being lucky enough to be in "an amazing community" that decides that that individual is worthy of the community coming together to provide care.

    May 25, 2011 at 12:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Delois Dilbeck

    great job Matt All things are possible if you and God word together

    May 25, 2011 at 14:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Special Sanders

    OMG! I couldn't believe this when I saw this. I went to high school with Matt Courson. We had a class together my senior year! I'm so happy for him. I remember seeing him in a wheelchair for the first time back in college and I remember how sad I felt for him. Later on at a service at the on-campus MBSF he told all of that he was going "to walk again someday". At the time, I could do nothing but admire his faith in God & his determination. I truly hope that he IS able to more in the future. I'm SO proud to know someone who has accomplished this great feat! To God be ALL the glory!!!

    May 26, 2011 at 15:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Troy

    Matt..ur awesome..I'm in the exact same boat this year..it's hell in the since of helplessness. I was the same..a t-11 burst from an unkown motorcycle accident on the way down broadway in Oakland on the way to enjoy a chai tea and read a book..haunting was the premenisions I had days before..I missed it..( frown ).
    I'm in my 10 th month an have moved back Midwest as well to seek therapy help. Everyone says I'll walk...I pray so..deeply..deeply pray so. I was like you..avid athlete from Texas..highly successful buisnessman..it's a blow.
    Your story gives huge encouargement..love you for your fight and inspiration..Medicare dude..tell me this..what do you do when your going along and you wake up in the hospital paralyzed..that's what can happen..go spend your tax money on war then..duh. Accidents hugely happen and there's little one can do at all..I was 6'3..207lbs..very low body fat..it can happen..stay strong and Matt..please..please do get in touch (were a few..and any other similar or assistance): troy2c@yahoo.com
    Stay strong Matt ...your so right with much you say..curves in life, dealing with friends that come to find out were not friends...stay blessed

    May 27, 2011 at 19:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Kirby

    Actually, these numbers acltaluy sound pretty favorable. I have heard .25% to .50% is the typical equity stake for someone in this position, unless he or she makes the company, but in that case, perhaps they should be in a cofounder role. Remember that some of VC or angel's sweet deal may in fact server as a phantom compensation of sorts for all of the free services he or she provides.

    November 14, 2012 at 05:27 | Report abuse | Reply

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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.