Logo: University of Southern California

Moving Forward

USC Viterbi Student Stephen Wilson hasn't allowed a devastating car accident to stand in the way of his academic and personal dreams
By: David Haldane
May 12, 2015 —
 Photo courtesy of Steve Wilson / Campuzano Photography

The last thing USC Viterbi student Stephen Wilson remembers is speeding through darkness at 75 mph. He didn’t notice the large boulder by the side of the road, probably because he had nodded off. Seconds later, he woke up, trapped in the twisted wreckage of his car.

“I was extremely confused,” Wilson, 31, said of the 2007 accident “There was broken glass everywhere and the dashboard was crushed so I could see the internal workings of my car. All I remember is hearing my dog whimpering in the back and feeling very scared.”

After the dust settled and the last piece of metal had been cut away, Wilson – who once played competitive soccer – emerged as a paraplegic, paralyzed for life. By anyone’s reckoning, the accident was tragic. And yet the young man, now a mechanical engineering student at USC Viterbi, wrested triumph from despair. Working with a company that specializes in biomedical engineering, Wilson is helping pave the way towards something he and other paraplegics share: the dream of one day walking again.

The company is ReWalk Robotics, producer of a mechanical exoskeleton designed to help paralyzed people move. And Wilson’s job is to promote it in the context of his own gripping tale. “Stephen is great,” said Phil Astrachan, national business director for the company that has headquarters in the U.S., Germany and Israel. “Having someone like him talk about this from the inside is really crucial; there’s a level of trust and honest in the way he tells his story.”

Wilson’s post-accident story began during a three-month stint at a hospital in Reno, Nevada, where he lived at the time. “At first I was devastated,” he recalled, “there’s just no other way to put it. I was disappointed and thinking, ‘Is this my life?’ I couldn’t believe that something like this had happened.”

As the shock wore off, though, his mood began to change. By the time a surgeon came in to deliver the bad news, the patient was ready to argue. “He said, ‘You know, there’s a good chance that you’ll never walk again,’ Wilson recalled, “But I didn’t believe it. My attitude was that I would prove him wrong.”

Some would say that he already has.

From Reno, Wilson later moved to Torrance to be near a medical clinic. He also enrolled at El Camino College to study pre-engineering, a subject long dear to his heart. Two years ago Wilson transferred to USC on a full scholarship provided by Swim with Mike, a university-based nonprofit aiding spine-injured students with athletic backgrounds.

“Stephen is awesome,” said Gregg Millward, a USC assistant athletic director who sits on the nonprofit’s board and interviewed Wilson for the scholarship. “He is highly motivated and extremely intelligent.” Added Wilson: “Being at USC Viterbi is wonderful. I’m around very smart individuals, all my professors are really great and lots of them are doing interesting research.”

Some of that research involves biomedical engineering, the study of how to adapt mechanical devices to the human body in ways beneficial for those with disabilities. One such device is the Re-Walk, which a therapist encouraged Wilson to try in 2013.

Originally developed in Israel, the device is the first FDA-approved bionic walking assistance system that, powered by a backpack battery and wrist-mounted remote, uses powerful leg attachments that enable paraplegics to stand upright, walk and climb stairs. The first time he used it, Wilson recalled, the experience made him feel completely liberated. “Every time I walked outside,” he said, “it gave me a glow.”

After about three weeks of training, Wilson displayed enough proficiency to be offered a paid part-time position as what he calls a company ambassador. His job: to demonstrate the device’s proper use to potential customers at hospitals, care centers and seminars nationwide, a position he’s held for more than two years. One of the benefits is that earlier this year he received his own free personal ReWalk, which normally costs about $70,000.

Walking in the buzzing robot-like contraption makes him look and sound kind of like the bionic man. Which is one of the reasons he doesn’t usually wear the thing to school. The other reason is that the ReWalk, still being developed, is not yet perfected enough to replace a wheelchair. So about twice a week, Wilson straps himself into the exoskeleton to take a stroll.

“Usually I just walk around the patio,” said Wilson, who lives in an off-campus university apartment building, with the black Labrador named Sierra with whom he survived the accident. “Mostly, I use it for exercise and therapy; to improve my strength and function.”

In April, though, he raised $1,500 for Swim with Mike by making good on a promise to walk 35 laps of the USC pool. “A lot of people have never seen me standing,” he said. “When I walk, I love their reaction; it helps me with my self-esteem.”

But there’s a serious side having to do with helping others and himself. Though he doesn’t yet work with biomedical devices in his studies, Wilson plans to pursue a graduate degree in biomedical engineering at USC which, beginning next year, would involve just that.

“Coming to USC has given me purpose,” he said. “I want to cure paralysis; there were times when I thought that was impossible, but now I believe it’s realistic.”

His personal goal: to one day junk the wheelchair altogether and prove his surgeon wrong.