Andrew Meas. Photo courtesy of the Meas family.
When Andrew Meas first became a young father at the age of 22, he was physically unstoppable. In addition to working as an electrical technician and caring for his son with his wife Sophorn, he adhered, for years, to a strict routine of daily gym workouts, plus a slew of activities that kept him fit — kickboxing, kung fu, snowboarding, skiing, hiking, and Muay Thai, the martial art of Cambodia, the country his parents left for California when Meas was still in utero. But it all came to a halt one early evening in 2007, when Meas was cruising home from the gym on his motorcycle in Louisville, Kentucky, where he had lived since high school. He was hit head-on by a car, and the impact caused a spinal-cord injury, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down.
“My son was 6 at the time, so it was pretty devastating,” Meas, now 35, tells Yahoo Parenting. “It broke my heart because I couldn’t see him for so long. I was in the ICU for weeks, then had to transfer to a different place to wean off the breathing machine because I had pneumonia and was fighting for my life.” One time, he recalls, his wife Sophorn, a manicurist, snuck Christian in to see his dad, which got them scolded by the staff. “It was worth it just to see him for a little bit. I was getting depressed. And he was a little guy and he missed his dad,” Meas says.
Meas and his son, before the accident. Photo courtesy of the Meas family.
But it was only the beginning of a very long road marked by fear for the future, financial strain, and a pervasive feeling of hopelessness — until Meas got a call that would change his life yet again. It came from researchers based at the University of Louisville’s Kentucky Spinal Cord Research Center, who were working with the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation (a legacy of the late actor and his wife) on a groundbreaking effort to bring life back into the limbs of those suffering from paralysis.
Meas’s pre-paralyzed life as a highly active person — plus his status at the time as an impressively fit player of competitive quad rugby, and the fact that he was a local resident — helped qualify him for a cutting-edge treatment: The implantation of an epidural stimulator at the base of his spine that would hopefully mimic brain signals in order to initiate movement once again. Meas, along with three other men who had become paralyzed, was chosen for the treatment, and he underwent the implantation surgery. Last week, the Reeve Foundation announced the next phase of research, launching “The Big Idea” campaign to raise $15 million, which would allow 36 more patients to receive the stimulators (follow the cause on Twitter with #36for36).
The Meas family, in pre-accident days. Photo courtesy of the Meas family.
“While we hoped that epidural stimulation would facilitate movement for individuals with complete paralysis, the autonomic recovery [of bowel, bladder and sexual function] was an accidental discovery, but a quantum leap toward reversing the most devastating and life-threatening complications of a spinal cord injury,” Peter Wilderotter, President and CEO of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, notes in a press release about the campaign. “After centuries of darkness, we have promising therapy in the here-and-now to transform the lives of those who were told nothing could be done for them.”
Meas was certainly one of those people. While in the hospital after his accident, he recalls, “The doctor came in and said I was paralyzed, that I’d partially severed my spinal cord. ‘Of course you don’t have a good chance of walking again, you’re paralyzed from chest down,’ he said. I was like, what am I going to do now? I’ve got a family I have to take care of,” Meas recalls. “Everything was pretty much dropped on my wife, which was really hard. I didn’t know how long it would take for me to get independent. For a while I couldn’t even push my own [wheel]chair. Then you worry about bills, because it starts backing up.”
Plus, the whole ordeal was incredibly confusing and traumatic for young Christian. “He was asking lots of questions — where’s my dad, what happened — and my wife had to hide in the closet to cry,” Meas says.
Coming home from the hospital was a huge challenge as well. Congregants from the family’s church got volunteers to install a ramp into the front door for Meas, and to widen his bathroom and bedroom to make way for his chair. And friends and family held a fundraiser, which helped with bills — as did the $100,000 settlement Meas’s family received from the driver who had hit him, a 91-one-year old man who “shouldn’t have been driving,” Meas says. But, he adds, “That money melted in, like, two years.”
Being immobile, and therefore unable to help out with the most basic tasks of childrearing and running a household, took its toll. “You start getting low self-esteem because you’re like, I can’t do this, I can’t do this, and wow, I can’t do this,” Meas says. “Fortunately my son was already into video games, and I could do that with him, using my left hand. That we can enjoy together. Just recently we went to a haunted house that was wheelchair accessible.”
Meanwhile, he notes, his wife was having a hard time — both dealing with her own stress and sadness and managing Christian’s. “He looks at other dads then looks at me, sees how people see me differently, and it gets him really angry,” Meas notes. “Sometimes he was like, ‘Dad, why did you have to have a motorcycle?’” Since Meas has received his stimulator, though, he’s seen a change in Christian’s perception: “He saw how much stronger I was, how dedicated I was [to recovering] and how tough I became. And he started looking to me as like a superdad.”
Just two weeks after his stimulator implantation, Meas says he was able to wiggle his left pinky toe — a feat that had been previously unthinkable. Soon thereafter, he adds, “I started being able to stand, put weight on my feet, stand up with assistance, lay on my back and pull my knees up, and wiggle my ankle.” It was a startling change from being able to move nothing but his left hand for three years, and it’s given the entire family hope.
“You know your body best, more than any scientist,” Meas says. “And with this, and the way it makes my body feel, I know I’m going to walk again. I feel it in me.”