Then, Atchison said, he realized that his legs felt strangely huge — and completely numb. He was paralyzed from the chest down.
“I was just praying — asking for forgiveness and thanking God for keeping me alive,” said Atchison, who was trapped for at least an hour before rescuers freed him. “I said, ‘From here on out, I’m going to live for you and nothing else.’ I never got down after that. I figure that’s what must have kept me up — God keeping me up.”
That sense of destiny propelled Atchison when he faced another shock just seven days later: Doctors asked him to volunteer to be the first person to have an experimental drug made from human embryonic stem cells injected into his body.
“We were just stunned,” said Atchison, who was with his mother and grandfather when researchers approached him. “We were like, ‘Whoa, really?’ We were all just kind of in awe.”
Atchison, known to friends and family as T.J., described the events during an interview Tuesday with The Washington Post — his first detailed account since disclosing his carefully guarded identity to The Post. Atchison’s story reveals provocative insights into one of the most closely watched medical experiments, including what some might see as irony: that a treatment condemned on moral and religious grounds is viewed by the first person to pioneer the therapy, and by his family, as part of God’s plan.
“It wasn’t just luck or chance,” said Atchison, who, six months after the treatment, thinks he might be feeling the first signs that the cells are helping him.
“It was meant to be.”
Atchison, whose Sept. 25 crash occurred while visiting home during his second semester at the University of South Alabama’s College of Nursing, had heard about embryonic stem cells’ potentially revolutionary power to morph into almost any tissue in the body, as well as their infamy because days-old embryos had been destroyed to get them.
“I didn’t know as much about it then as I know now. I did know that stem cells could be used to cure all kinds of things,” Atchison said, swiveling in his wheelchair, which, like his car and many other belongings, is the University of Alabama football team’s crimson. “I was thinking like 50 years down the road or something like that.”
Raised Baptist in a small town where the main road has more churches than fast-food restaurants, Atchison nonetheless has no moral qualms about helping to launch the first U.S. government-sanctioned attempt to study a treatment using embryonic stem cells in people. The cells implanted into his spine were obtained from embryos being discarded at fertility clinics, he said.
“It’s not life. It’s not like they’re coming from an aborted fetus or anything like that. They were going to be thrown away,” he said. “Once they explained to me where the stem cells were coming from, once I learned that, I was okay with it.”