The Will to Walk

Courtesy Aaron Bunnell

Aaron Bunnell remembers running down a sandy, white beach in the Galapagos Islanda and diving into a wave. He even vaguely recalls hitting his head on the ocean floor and being unable to move or yell for help. But that's it. By the time his traveling companions, some 50 feet away, realized that he wasn't just playing in the water, Bunnell had been unconscious for an estimated 8 to 10 minutes and had no vital signs. His heart had stopped. His body was blue. His mouth was foaming. "I was pretty dead," he says.

He looked so bad that a doctor at the beach recommended that a lifeguard and a nurse who were doing CPR should stop. Thankfully, they ignored his advice. Bunnell started breathing -- but remained paralyzed. That was on December 23, 1997, and every day since has been a battle along his near-miraculous road to recovery.

The trip, like the accident itself, was a fluke. Bunnell, '96, ended up in the Galapagos because a Stanford friend offered him a free ticket to join a 15-member eco-tourism group that was exploring plants and animals in the area. Instead of a stimulating vacation, Bunnell wound up paralyzed and isolated, far from medical help over the Christmas holiday. The resourceful people in his tour group duct-taped his head to a plank and accompanied him on a 10-hour boat trip to Port Aoura in Ecuador, where they bought seats on a military flight to the capital, Quito. From there, he was flown to the University of Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital, where the actor Christopher Reeve also had been treated for spinal injury. Surgeon Allan Levi rebuilt Bunnell's broken vertebrae during a four-hour operation. (Uninsured, Bunnell now owes $70,000 in medical bills.)

Most people with serious spinal cord injuries never walk again. "He is one of the lucky ones," says Levi. Lucky, because he had not completely severed his spinal cord and had a superb surgeon, a huge support network of family and friends and the inner strength and ability to concentrate wholly on recovery. "He's mentally and physically just a very special person," says Lee Flippin, his boss at Roche Bioscience in Palo Alto, where Bunnell worked on the discovery of new drugs in the year following his graduation from Stanford.

After the accident, Bunnell was unable even to roll over in bed, but within six months he rapidly progressed and can now slowly walk a mile and dribble a soccer ball. Today, Bunnell devotes himself full time to his rehabilitation at home near Seattle. When he has completely mastered the art of walking again, he has another goal. He hopes to get into Stanford medical school -- and perhaps one day become a rehabilitation doctor.

-- Karen Springen, '83