PORTLAND, Ore. — A bodysurfing accident last year paralyzed Vishal Shukla at 23 years old from the neck down, but just over a year later he climbed to the top of Mount Hood.
“I wanted to prove to myself at some point or another, can I recover to the point I could climb a freaking mountain? And I did prove that to myself,” he said in an interview from Utah.
It took a lot of hard work, through intensive physical and occupational therapies, and, Shukla says, a lot of luck.
“Being told you’re going to be stuck in a wheelchair forever – for a 23-year-old kid, that’s definitely not what you want to hear,” he said.
A day of spring break fun in the California sun last year turned Shukla’s life upside down in an instant.
“I guess I had a little too much fun bodysurfing,” he said. “Basically, a giant wave came up behind me, scorpioned super hard, and I instantly shattered my C5 vertebrae, broke my neck, was paralyzed from the neck down. I was underwater for about a minute.”
Shukla said he was in critical condition for about 90 minutes before he was taken into surgery.
When he woke up, he had to face the “ever dreaded talk, which is, ‘we don’t think you’ll walk.’’’
But Shukla defied the odds, and not only did he regain his ability to walk, just 14 months after his accident, he made it to the summit of Mount Hood.
“One of my really good buddies, Nick, who later ended up joining me on the climb, he sent me a photo of him trail building out in Oregon, and Mount Hood was in the background,” Shukla said. “I was sitting in my wheelchair at the time and looking out my hospital window in Utah.”
He decided that after he overcame his injury, he would climb Mount Hood.
After months of cardio, strength conditioning, and some snowshoeing trips in the Utah mountains, Shukla was ready to make the climb on May 17.
“Just the amount of support I had from the entire crew. Obviously with me and my injury, the difficulties with that, the pace was slower than normal. Just everyone being as patient as they were and supportive as they were, it was absolutely amazing to have that on the way up,” he said.
On the way down, Shukla said his right leg gave out.
“Once again, shoutout to my buddy Nick. He did drag me the last two miles down that mountain,” he said.
Now, Shukla looks forward to graduating from college and pushing forward with his recovery. He even wants to backpack through Siberia after he finishes college.
“All four of my limbs are still affected by the paralysis,” he said. “My grip strength is only about a third of what it used to be. My triceps are really weak, as well as my lat muscles and my trunk. And then my right leg, especially.”
As he continues his recovery, Shukla wants to help others, too. He has started a fundraiser for a nonprofit called Neuroworx, which specializes in neurological and spinal cord injuries.
“Add insult to injury, compound $500,000 to 1 or 2 million dollars in medical bills on top of that, it’s just not a fun spot to be in,” he said.
It was Neuroworx in Sandy, Utah, where Shukla did his outpatient physical rehab.
“It’s just an absolutely amazing facility,” he said. “One of the PTs there actually had his own spinal cord injury. The guy who runs it, his name is Dale Hull, he also had his own spinal cord injury, so they are really understanding of what people go through.”
Meanwhile, Shukla has advice for anyone else living with a spinal cord injury.
“Make use of your resources. Turn everything into a physical rehab session, occupational rehab session, just a fun little activity and at the same time, it’s really important to eat well and give your body time to heal,” he said.