Courtesy of MUTV and credit to Bethany Miller and Jordan Hancock.
One year, one month and two days ago, a police SUV struck Hunter Heck as he walked the crosswalk between Spring Street and College Avenue. After five surgeries, countless infections and over three months of recovery and physical therapy in various hospitals, Heck returned to campus without feeling in the lower half of his body and with a burning drive to tell his story.
“My family was really supportive. At first, they were wanting me to transfer to Wright State,” Heck, a native of the Dayton suburb, Tipp City, said. “It has the most wheelchaired students at any university; they have tunnels to classes which would be nice, but I just felt like I left my life here. Relationships are the most important thing in life pretty much and I’d rather keep those here.”
Miami junior Nick Mara, Heck’s cousin and closest friend, witnessed the accident and has been by Heck’s side since.
“When Hunter came back to school, first off, I was in utter disbelief. I mean I knew that it was his plan… but that idea just seemed so incredibly unlikely with how bad his accident was,” he said. “It’s so awesome to have him back and ever since we’ve been kids, we’ve been as close as brothers, and we always used to say how cool it would be if we were able to live together.”
Mara also said he feels a sense of relief in Heck’s return to campus.
“Now that he’s back, I laugh a lot more,” Mara said.
Even with a strong support system, Heck’s initial readjustment was difficult. “That first week was really nostalgic, no better way to put it,” he said. “It really made me think of the start of last year. It’s different in the sense that I’m in a chair now and I have different roommates but it feels really similar too. I’m much more aware like crossing the street, definitely,” he said, laughing.
Oct. 6 was a day Heck had been waiting for. Calling it his “rebirth-day,” Heck threw two parties that weekend, one at Miami and one in his hometown on the actual anniversary of the accident. He described those 48 hours as an emotional rollercoaster. “On the drive from here back home, I just had this feeling, this gut feeling that I just knew… I was going to cry at some point, I got a chilling feeling,” he said. “I can’t remember the last time I cried. I know I’ve never shed a tear in the past year. The handful of days I have felt down, I just wanted to cry and wanted to let it out and I never could. It was just like, if being told that I would never be able to stand up again, if that can’t make me cry, I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to be able to cry again.”
Heck made it through almost the entire day with all smiles and no tears, until his brother and sister-in-law texted him that evening.
“She mentioned a story in the hospital … a couple of days after the accident, I looked like a science project, I had a big tube down my throat,” he said. Heck was in a coma at the time, and has no recollection of this time after his accident.
“She was typing saying my heart would spike now and then … and people would hold my hand and try to calm me down. One time … my brother grabbed my hand and leaned down next to me, I turned my head toward him. ‘You have to fight through this,’ he said, ‘you have to.’ And I nodded my head yes, she said. I was unconscious, I have no memory of it and somehow I still knew I had to fight through it.”
Heck said this was the moment he had longed for, when he could finally release all of the emotions that had built up throughout the last year.
“I just started bawling,” he said. “It felt so good to get it out.”
After switching his major from mechanical engineering to marketing, Heck feels more solidified than ever in his post-graduation plans.
“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with that before; since my accident I want to focus on adaptive equipment and new rehab technology,” he said. “I see it almost as like selfish because yeah, I help other people but it’s going to help me too.”
Heck spent the summer interning for Parker Hannifin, working with products specially designed for handicapped individuals, and said he’d rather focus on treatment than a cure.
“A cure would be sick, I’m sure they’re going to have some cure in my lifetime… but I’m not waiting up for it,” he said.
Upon his return to school, Heck began a blog, hunterheck.com, to chronicle his life after spinal cord injury. His posts are raw and honest, delving into issues that most would find too intimate for the internet. Jake Polansky, one of Heck’s closest friends from home and a junior at Miami, said with his blog and with his life, Heck “has a point to prove about what he went through; that it isn’t how you get knocked down but how you get back up.”
“Hunter doesn’t lie, cheat or even beat remotely around the bush because he has realized time is too precious to do that,” he said.
Heck’s style is attracting a lot of traffic; the page has over 13,000 hits from 17 countries, but the increasing popularity of his website isn’t getting to his head.
“It doesn’t make me feel like a big shot or anything like that, it just makes me feel good I guess,” Heck said.
He’s already used to the attention, with his previous online presence in the form of his mother, Hayley Heck’s recently retired Facebook page, “Pray for Hunter.” Through the internet and in person, Heck has received a swath of compliments on his recovery, strength and drive.
“I’ve gotten a lot of different people who tell me what an inspiration I am; I heard that hundreds of times honestly,” Heck said. “The first several times it made me feel really good, and then it kind of just became like any other thing anyone else would say to me because I was so used to hearing it.”
Many of Heck’s posts discuss how people react to him, and how to help someone in a chair, especially when that means not physically doing anything.
“The man in a single year’s time has died twice, and lived three times,” Polansky said. “He wants no sympathy from anyone, no extra attention, just recognition of his and other paraplegics’ lack of choice to be how they are.”
“He just finds it weird when people give him special treatment, and even more weird that people would think he wouldn’t like to do all the same things that they do,” he said. “I mean don’t hesitate to come up and say hi, everyone loves friends, and by all means ask about his story, but please don’t offer to give him one or both of your legs, He’s perfectly fine without them.”