UC Berkeley’s graduation day this year was symbolic for graduate Austin Whitney because he was able to experience it in an ordinary way.
Not only did he earn his degree, but he received it while standing upright, looking Chancellor Robert Birgeneau directly in the eyes. Whitney, who has been paraplegic for nearly fours years, walked.
Strapped into an exoskeleton and leaning on a walker, Whitney took a few steps Saturday before he shook the hand of Birgeneau and hugged him, all the while receiving a standing ovation from his fellow graduates.
Four years ago, Whitney was “just like anybody else — walking,” according to his father, Jim Whitney. But a typical night partying with friends the summer after graduating from high school permanently altered his world.
After driving 100 miles that night, all the while drunk, Whitney lost control of his car in the last quarter of a mile from home, and his car wrapped around a tree. The crash instantly severed Whitney’s spine and broke his rib cage, and his friend was thrown out of the vehicle.
Whitney spent 41 days in the hospital while a “wine-bottle amount of blood” was taken out of his lungs each day due to internal bleeding, he said. Both Whitney and his friend survived, but Whitney did not immediately realize the extent of his injuries.
“No one ever tells you, ‘You severed your spinal cord — you’re never going to walk again,’” he said. “I really wished the car would have killed me.”
Meanwhile, his father had stage four thyroid cancer. Although his family thought both might die, his father also survived.
Whitney pushed forward focused on the power of attitude, thanks to his uncle, whose own son died at Whitney’s age. Instead of going to the University of Michigan in the fall, Whitney enrolled in community college a week after the accident and transferred to UC Santa Barbara for the spring semester. He then transferred to UC Berkeley for his sophomore year.
“I’m a happier person now than I was before the accident,” Whitney said. “All this wheelchair stuff is minor, knowing I’m alive.”
Whitney has shared his story at high schools so students recognize the risk of drinking. He has spoken to over 40,000 students in three states so far, hoping that at least someone learns from his mistake.
“If one does, that gives all of this purpose and meaning,” he said.
Whitney is also finding meaning in the accident by working on the exoskeleton with the team of engineers, who said Whitney’s graduation was “symbolic” for them, too.
Professor Homayoon Kazerooni had been working with a team of graduate students on exoskeletons for years when Whitney heard about the work from a friend this fall and went to the professor’s office looking to get involved.
Whitney became an essential member of the team by showing what did and did not work.
“Nothing really meant anything until an end user got into it,” said control designer Jason Reid.
According to mechanical designer Wayne Tung, Whitney uses the exoskeleton by squeezing handles that tell the computer in the back of the device what he wants to do. The computer tells two motors in the back, which power the mechanism in the hip, then powering the knees. Whitney can even control what type of step he wants — such as feet together or a full step.
They “hit a minor glitch” at Whitney’s graduation — he was supposed to walk across the stage but ended up only taking a few steps with help from the engineers — because Whitney did not shift his weight properly, which the engineers said was because he was too excited. Yet Tung said the walk was important for the team to see what still needs work.
Whitney said he is especially excited for this exoskeleton because the team plans to put it on the market. Because this exoskeleton has a simpler, “smarter design” than other exoskeletons too costly for most disabled people, Tung said it will be affordable for people to use in their everyday lives.
The exoskeleton allows Whitney and his family to enjoy what most take for granted.
“It’s the simple things like being able to hug your mom,” Whitney said. “It’s the simple things you miss.”
Although Whitney graduated, he plans to stay in Berkeley and continue tweaking the exoskeleton, which has been named “Austin.” He will also travel more for speaking engagements, which he plans to do for a few more years — “as long as kids can relate.”
But right now, Whitney is soaking in his graduation.
“I’m still so speechless … Less than fours years ago, I was in a hospital bed thinking I was going to die,” he said. “I can think of no greater gift.”