Dawud Hamdan was just 13 years old when his life changed forever. It was a Friday in June of 2010 and he was anxiously awaiting the end of his final period. An active eighth grader who loved to be outdoors, Hamden was already letting his mind wander to his afternoon activities and weekend plans.
That’s when he first felt it. It started as a sharp pain in his upper shoulders and back. Within moments his arms and hands were numb. Sitting over his desk, he turned to a friend to complain about the pain. Minutes later it was unbearable.
After asking his teacher for permission to go to the nurse’s office, he made his way to the door. Hunched over with his arms crossed and hands seemingly locked into place, he bent down and attempted to turn the handle with his elbows.
Struggling to walk, he almost collapsed halfway down the hallway. With tears streaming down his face, Hamdan yelled in agony, but marshalled on. It was perhaps the longest two minutes of his young life.
Finally arriving to find a substitute nurse, he took a seat and asked her to call 9-1-1. When the paramedics arrived with a stretcher, they asked if he could stand. Having already lost full control of his body, he couldn’t.
Initially taken to the Capital Health Regional Medical Center in Trenton, N.J, the cause of Hamdan’s sudden pain remained a mystery for several hours. Unable to pinpoint its origin, doctors transferred him to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Undergoing an MRI, CAT scan, and battery of other tests, they finally identified the culprit, transverse myelitis.
A neurological condition, transverse myelitis causes inflammation along a segment of the spinal cord. The pressure created interrupts messages that nerves send throughout the body, resulting in pain, muscle weakness, sensory problems, and/or paralysis.
“Nobody really knows what caused it,” says Hamdan. “The prognosis depends from person-to-person. For me, it was a more severe case because the inflammation covered a large area from the top of my neck to the center of my back.”
Hamdan spent the majority of the next six weeks in the intensive care unit (ICU). Unable to breathe on his own, he was intubated. After a month of intubation, doctors considered performing a tracheostomy. At the 11th hour, he began to show signs of improvement, staving off the procedure.
But while Hamdan was finally able to breathe on his own, the road to recovery was just beginning. Multiple surgeries, collapsed lungs, and a bout with pancreatitis were just a few of the complications. Ultimately, he even developed severe scoliosis.
“It took me a while to come to terms with what was happening and what my future looked like,” Hamdan says. “I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to be able to walk again, and I’m still not sure. It was difficult for everyone in my family, but I had to accept it before anybody else could. Once I did, I started thinking that I had to do this for them. They’ve been taking care of me and I may as well be strong mentally to help provide some stability.”
Eventually transferred to the Center for Rehabilitation at the Children’s Hospital, Hamdan began the painstaking work of rebuilding his strength. At first, he needed help with everything. He couldn’t use his hands and needed assistance eating and drinking. He even had trouble swallowing.
But as the weeks turned to months, Hamdan began to make progress. With time he was learning to do more things on his own. Despite missing the beginning of his freshman year of high school, he resumed his studies with the help of a school-appointed aide. Over the next couple of years, he underwent several procedures that increased the mobility in his arms and the grip in his hands. Before he knew it, it was time to start thinking about college, the only question was where.
“Commuting would be really hard for me to do,” says Hamdan. “I originally wanted to go to Monmouth University, but they didn’t have the accommodations for me to live there. My dad and I were always on the phone trying to get connected with people from different universities to see if any of them could offer me any special living arrangements.”
Initially on the waitlist at Rutgers, Hamdan also explored several schools in the Philadelphia area, but struggled to find the right fit. Following a visit to Temple in the fall of his senior year, he finally got the news he’d been waiting for.
“It was pretty quiet on the car ride home [from Temple] and tensions were high,” Hamdan says. “We were wondering what we were going to do, then all of a sudden I got an email from Rutgers saying congratulations. I had visited before and everything seemed really promising. It was a blessing and a complete sensation of relief.”