Years after he was paralyzed, this Virginia man is walking at his college graduation

Khalil Watson will experience that rite of passage with help from an exoskeleton.
Posted at 9:06 PM, May 15, 2023

RICHMOND, Va. -- It's a safe bet that 25-year-old Khalil Watson would not call it miraculous that, even though he is paralyzed from the neck down, he can finally walk across the stage at graduation.

Nearly seven years after he was shot in the back and neck, Watson will experience that rite of passage for the first time, when he receives his associate's degree from Reynolds Community College. He'll walk to get his degree with the help of a robotic exoskeleton loaned out by Sheltering Arms Physical Therapy.

“When you’re sitting down all the time, things can start to get uncomfortable. Being able to get upright, on your feet, being able to get any type of leg movement, whether having someone stretch your legs for you or walking, feels amazing," Watson said.

In May 2016, Watson was shot and spent months in the hospital. He still graduated from Highland Springs High School, but could not take part in any of the events surrounding that time in a teenager's life.

"Prom was the week after I got shot, and graduation was the following week. I had to miss graduation and prom due to being hospitalized," Watson said.

The physical work it took to even get Watson to the point was immense, he said.

"I was like a baby all over again. I had to learn how to breathe on my own, eat, and speak," Watson said. "If it wasn’t for all my therapists, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’ve always been strong mentally, and I always knew I wanted to go to school.”

School was the second avenue through which Watson channeled his natural drive and ambition to push forward. When he was able to being taking classes, they were in person prior to the pandemic.

Watson, who lives in Eastern Henrico with his family, relied on public transportation to get to class, which on occasion showed the lengths he would take to accomplish his goals.

"There would be times when I would miss the GRTC bus, and I’d ride my chair all the way downtown," Waston said. The journey from Eastern Henrico to Reynold's downtown location is many miles on roads that do not always have sidewalks.

"Nobody would know how I got there but myself and a couple of people I told. I don’t have a sensible vehicle, so I had to do the best thing I could to get to school," he said. "I was left with two options: either miss or figure out how to get to school. So, I did just that."

Watson said he first used the robotic exoskeleton a couple of years ago during physical therapy at Sheltering Arms.

The device detects the body's movement to allow Watson and other wearers to walk or perform other physical tasks. It is mostly used for physical therapy sessions to help improve mobility and independence.

Sheltering Arms is loaning out the device so Watson can make his graduation walk, with the help of two therapists.

“I really appreciate Sheltering Arms because if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have accomplished a lot of my goals," he said.

Soon, Watson will enroll at VCU, where after he achieves his bachelor's degree, he plans to pursue a master's in social work.

"We all need assistance, some more than others. I feel like I’m the best fit for that profession," he said. "Going through what I experienced has enabled me to easily connect with individuals and understand individuals who have similar situations as mine, or worse."

In a situation where many people would understandably fold, the miracle of Watson's story might stem from the work he's willing to put in.

“I’ve always been determined and self-driven. I just try not to let anything stop me, regardless of my circumstances. I feel like things can always be worse than what they are. That’s how I’m able to keep going," he said.

Admittedly, Watson does not often celebrate his own wins. His diploma and the walk to get it an important step in a journey he says is far from over.

“I did this for my family, my friends, myself. Being able to walk across the stage will mean everything because I wasn’t able to do so in high school. I’ll finally be able to say that all my hard work has paid off," Watson said.

"You never know, one day I might be out of this wheelchair," he said.

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