Student Summits Mount Hood After Being Paralyzed in Accident

Published: June 16, 2023 | Author: Abbie Cochrane | Read Time: 6 minutes

Vishal ShuklaVishal Shukla is not only a senior at Southern Utah University, but he is perhaps the most incredible climber of Mount Hood. About fourteen months ago, Shukla was in a body surfing accident that left him quadriplegic. Now, after many weeks of physical and occupational therapy, he has regained full mobility and recently summited the 11, 240-foot peak.

Shukla’s accident happened over spring break 2022, when he and some of his friends went to Laguna Beach in California.

“I remember looking back at the wave and feeling like I was about to get hit by a freight train,” said Shukla. “But I was in an area that went from being really deep to really shallow, so instead of propelling me forward, the wave launched me up and my body scorpioned in mid-air. Along with gravity, I also had all the momentum and kinetic energy of the wave pushing down on this pressure point in my neck and it sounded like someone snapped three sticks of celery when the vertebrae cracked.”

Shukla landed back in the water, unable to move any of his limbs, and immediately knew that something was wrong. Thankfully, he had received his scuba license while taking a class at SUU, and knew what to do in a perilous situation.

“That program saved my life,” Shukla said. “They taught us how to stay calm if there wasn’t an air source nearby. The only option was for someone else to come get me before I drowned. My life literally flashed before my eyes–my friends, family, everyone that I hold dear–and I really thought this was it for me.”

One of Shukla’s friends pulled him to shore just in time. But when he didn’t stand up, his friends called for an ambulance. When he arrived at the hospital, Shukla went into critical condition for over an hour.

“The concern was due to the fact that my spinal cord was swelling up from the damage, and the doctors were worried that this would sever my brain’s connection to my heart and diaphragm, and that this would cause my lungs and heart to stop,” Shukla explained.

After a surgery that took place the following morning, doctors approached Shukla with the news that no active 23-year-old person ever wants to hear; they didn’t think he would walk again.

The road to recovery was tough, but Shukla saw this as a challenge to overcome, rather than a roadblock.

“I didn’t see any other alternative,” Shukla said. “While my original prognosis had me in an electric wheelchair, as time went on, the prognosis evolved into a manual wheelchair, then a walker, then forearm crutches, and for a while I had a bit of a limp. Now I’m walking by myself and if you saw me on the street, I don’t think you would guess that I had been in that situation not too long ago.”

The recovery process involved lots of therapy in the hospital–but it wasn’t all physical work. Recovering paralysis patients use many different kinds of treatments to help them attain maximum mobility and independence. The most important thing is to incorporate a variety of tasks and activities into the rehabilitation process. Neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to create and reorganize synaptic connections (especially following a massive injury), is the key to helping patients relearn basic functions and fine motor skills. It starts with the smallest movement, like lifting a finger. Some people mentally exhaust themselves with the effort it takes to try and reteach the brain how to move extremities. Shukla was one of the lucky ones.

“Paralysis is always in the back of your mind when you’re snowboarding, or surfing, or doing anything with even slight risk,” said Shukla. “But then it happens and it’s all you can think about, and it’s something you think about every day for the rest of your life. You see all these D1 athletes in the patient ward whose whole identity revolved around their athletic performance and their physical ability to move. And paralysis takes their identity away. It certainly did for me.”

One step at a time, Shukla progressed in his recovery.

“It’s definitely about celebrating the little wins,” he said. “For example, being able to sit up on your own or lift a fork. And it’s also a reminder of the value of your support system–family, friends, etc.”

When a friend sent a picture of him in Oregon with the volcano in the background, Shukla turned his sights to Mount Hood. Located in the Cascade Mountain Range of the Pacific Northwest, Mount Hood is the highest peak in Oregon. The volcano has been dormant since 1866, and since then, thousands have climbed the mountain. It is, however, a perilous climb–certainly not one for the faint of heart.

“It was one of those things that clicked in my brain,” Shukla stated. “I was looking out at my own poster view of Mt. Olympus in Salt Lake City–which I’d already climbed– from my wheelchair in the hospital. I knew I wanted to climb Mount Hood someday, and looking down at the wheelchair I was in, I knew it was go time.”

Fourteen months later, Mount Hood is in the rearview mirror of Shukla’s outdoor accomplishments.

Since his summit of Mount Hood, Shukla’s story has been covered by many local and national news outlets and he has become an overnight inspiration for people in similar paralysis situations and beyond. He is currently promoting a fundraiser to give back to the place that helped him regain his ability to walk, and interested parties can donate and share across social media. He hopes to also contribute the money to a scholarship pool.

“Rehab is expensive, even with insurance,” said Shukla. “This money can help ease the financial burden for paraplegics, quadriplegics, anyone dealing with paralysis or neurological disabilities to help them get the care and resources they need as they recover.”

“Anyone who’s paralyzed wants to be treated like a person, which goes without saying. Also understanding that what you see with paralysis is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s nerve pains, spasticity, muscle spasms, mental struggle and so many other things that come with paralysis beyond just a loss of mobility and freedom,” he added.

Shukla is grateful to all the healthcare professionals who helped him in his recovery and offers special thanks to his family and friends. To anyone who is in a similar circumstance and looks to him as an inspiration, Shukla offers his encouragement.

“Recovery is all about healthy challenges,” he said. “It’s about hard work as much as it is about luck and the care you receive. I’m grateful if people can find comfort and inspiration in my story–I certainly didn’t expect it.”

Following graduation, Shukla plans to forge a career in outdoor business management.

Tags: Management School of Business SUU Outdoors

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