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.”
Immediately after the accident, while undergoing surgeries and other treatments to repair his shattered spine, broken collarbone and pinky, and nearly severed ear at the University of South Alabama Medical Center in Mobile, Atchison was befriended by the pastor of a local pentecostal church. When he found out the next week what Atchison had agreed to do, the pastor was uncertain how his community would respond.
“I said, ‘This is not going to be popular with some people. You might face death threats. You don’t know what the reaction is going to be,’ ” Troy Bailey of the Reynolds Holiness Church said Tuesday.
Bailey said he realized that he had to sort out his own stance, given that some people — himself included — who oppose abortion consider embryonic stem cell research to be immoral. But Bailey concluded that he, too, thought that this treatment was acceptable because the cells were obtained from embryos that had never been implanted in a womb and so had no chance of developing into a fetus.
“I am adamantly against abortion in any form. It did cause me some searching and researching biblically what is the proper answer,” he said. “I don’t really see a baby’s life was destroyed for this to take place.”
Bailey announced his conclusion to his parish the Sunday after Atchison’s Oct. 8 stem cell procedure and invited the congregation to come to him with objections. But, he said, he has never heard complaints from anyone in the town, which has rallied around Atchison and his family by building a ramp around his mother’s house and laying a concrete walkway for his wheelchair.
Bailey then devoted three weeks of Sunday school lessons to stem cells and issues he thought were related, such as birth-control pills and genetically designed babies.
“I’m definitely not wanting to encourage harvesting embryos for all kinds of crazy reasons,” Bailey said. “And that definitely led some people to have some hesitancy about some of these things.”
If Atchison’s role in the research has not provoked overt objections among his friends, family, neighbors and fellow churchgoers, the study has prompted denunciations from critics who oppose the research on moral grounds as well as intense debate among scientists, bioethicists and others who support the research.
Some worry that not enough basic studies and tests were done in animals before injecting cells into recently paralyzed patients. Many fret that the cells could be harmful, with the biggest dangers being that they might cause tumors or tortuous pain. Still others wonder whether patients who are struggling to come to terms with a devastating injury can make that kind of risky decision just two weeks after such a trauma.
Many proponents fear that if something goes wrong — or even if the cells fail to show any sign of helping patients — it could be a major blow for the field at a time when federal funding for the research is under attack in courts and Congress.
Atchison dismissed such concerns and praised his care at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, where he was transferred for rehabilitation. Shepherd is one of seven centers recruited by Geron, a Menlo Park, Calif., biotechnology company that is sponsoring the trial on 10 patients.
Three days after Atchison arrived at Shepherd, researchers asked him to undergo tests to see whether he met the study’s strict criteria.
Atchison turned to one of the doctors and asked her whether she was a Christian. “I said, ‘If everything passes like it was supposed to, if we made it through all that, then it’s God’s will,’ ” he said.
Nevertheless, during the next few days of testing and sleepless nights, Atchison couldn’t help but wonder about the risks. He knew surgeons would have to cut open his back to infuse about 2 million cells into his damaged spinal cord.
“I went through some major trauma with all this other stuff going on. And then they come in there, and everything just happened so fast,” he said. “You’re awake at all times thinking about it — just going through my mind like, ‘What could go wrong with this? Is there something that can go wrong?’ ”
Keeping a secret
After the procedure, Atchison spent three months at the Shepherd Center, learning how to bathe, cook and care for himself. But he had to keep his involvement in the study secret, even when a friend in rehab wished aloud for stem cells so that he could walk again.
“I kind of wanted to tell him, ‘Hey, you know, it could be closer than you think. Because it’s already happened,’ ” he said. “I just didn’t want him to feel upset about me getting it or anything like that. I didn’t want him to think I was going to be able to walk because of this.”
And although his doctors have stressed that they gave him a very low dose, primarily to look for adverse side effects, Atchison thinks that the cells might already be helping him. In studies involving rats, partially paralyzed animals that received cells regained the ability to move.
In recent weeks, after months of not feeling or not being able to move his body below his chest, Atchison said, he has begun to get some very slight sensation: He can feel relief when he lifts a bowling ball off his lap and discern discomfort when he pulls on hairs on some parts of his legs. He has also strengthened his abdomen.
“That’s something that just happened recently. It’s just slowly progressed more and more,” he said, noting that rodents did not start to regain movement until nine months after treatment.
Geron would not discuss Atchison’s case. The company is keeping the results of its tests on the study’s patients confidential.
“It’s driving everybody crazy not to know,” said James Shepherd, who founded the Shepherd Center. “At this point, it’s way too early to have a feel if it’s going well or if he’s getting anything back. The whole community and the patients in chairs are just curious and banging on doors and saying, ‘Tell us what’s happening.’ ”
Spinal-cord injury experts stress that patients such as Atchison can regain some sensation and movement on their own and that it is impossible to know whether the cells are helping based on a single subject. Advocates for such patients, although thrilled by the study, worry about raising false hope.
“I caution people: Don’t expect miracles that these patients are going to automatically jump out of their wheelchairs and run all over the place,” said Daniel Heumann, who is on the board of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.
Atchison’s accident occurred on the birthday of Reeve, the actor who was paralyzed in a horseback-riding accident and advocated for stem cell research.
“It’s just crazy that it happened like that,” said Atchison, who has two framed portraits of legendary University of Alabama football coach Paul William “Bear” Bryant on his walls.
“There’s been a few tough moments, waking up and wishing I could walk. But it passes,” Atchison, a high-school softball and football player, said while occasionally glancing at ESPN on his television.
Several times a week, Atchison exercises his legs with a stationary bike that delivers electrical stimulation to his muscles and pulls himself to a standing position on a contraption to retrain his 5-foot-8-inch frame to stand erect. He has learned to drive a car that he can operate with his hands and has resumed fishing and turkey hunting. He plans to return to school in August.
“I pray about it every night; I think I’ll be able to walk again. I think it will help me. I’ll keep riding my bike and exercising, and one day I’ll be able to walk again,” he said. “You want to let the stem cells see what they can do.”
After demonstrating how he mounts an all-terrain vehicle and operates his specially equipped Chevy Cruze, Atchison wheeled himself around the side of his house. His year-old Yorkie, Lilly, shot out of the door and scurried over to greet him, running slightly askew.
She, too, had been in a car accident and had recovered — except for one lame rear paw.