Two years ago, Ethan Wang (CAS’20) thought he’d never walk again. Now? He’s walking by himself, with the help of a walker, and can even go up stairs. Photo by Cydney Scott
Imagine thinking about how to walk.
Okay, raise your foot off the ground and step down. Now, bend your knee—don’t hyperextend it—and raise your other foot off the ground, and hit heel first. Feel the impact in your toes. Now repeat, and try to stay in a straight line.
For Ethan Wang , that’s a daily reality. Every step he takes has been accompanied by an itemized inner monologue, whether he’s practicing endurance at physical therapy or just walking across the kitchen to get a glass of water. Or, as will happen this weekend, as he and the rest of the Class of 2020 each take the stage during Boston University’s delayed 147th Commencement ceremonies.
For Ethan, graduating alongside his classmates is no small feat. And walking across any stage is nothing short of miraculous: in 2019, Ethan, now 23, was left paralyzed from the neck down after a wave flipped him onto his neck during his junior year spring break. At the time, doctors told him he’d never walk again.
But let’s take things back a bit.
Ethan grew up in Newton, closer to Boston College than to BU. His mom, Terri Yahia, is an attorney in the Boston area. His dad, Willis, is a longtime administrator in BU Global Programs, which runs the University’s Study Abroad programs, among others. Ethan has two younger brothers, twins Henry and Jacob, who are now juniors at BU and Georgia Tech, respectively. The family’s home, which Willis and Terri bought in 2002, is beautifully landscaped (Willis’ doing, Terri stresses, not her’s) and airy, with an open floor plan, a sunporch, and a sprawling back deck.
It’s also multigenerational: Willis’ parents, former refugees from China, moved in with the family in 2007. His father died last year during the pandemic, but his mother, Nora, still spends half the year with the Wangs and the other half with her daughter in southern California. (One perk of having a live-in grandma? “She makes really good food,” Ethan says.)
Growing up, the boys were boisterous—“They knew Henry in the ER by name!” Terri says—but good-natured. The three were always close, and athletic: altogether, the brothers have tried just about every sport in existence—lacrosse, soccer, basketball, baseball, plus plenty of surfing and skiing, and a stint rowing for Ethan—as well as every popular video game from the past two decades.
Then came college. Ethan says he had a feeling he’d end up at BU. He’d grown up around the campus because of his dad and had always pictured himself here. He was accepted to the College of Arts & Sciences as a political science major.
By junior year, Ethan had a steady life at BU. He’d joined the Sigma Epsilon fraternity, where he’d made fast friends, and he’d even met a girl, Phoebe Bobola (CAS’20), whom he’s still dating today. He liked his major and his classes and managed to secure an internship with Governor Charlie Baker’s reelection campaign in 2018. When he decided he wanted to study abroad his second semester, the only question was, where? Ultimately, he landed on Sydney, Australia.
He arrived in January 2019. It didn’t take him long to realize that Sydney was awesome. He did plenty of surfing while he was there, including once riding 10-to-12-foot waves after a cyclone hit the region. (“I’m glad I didn’t know that,” his mom says.) When spring break came, he and seven of his Study Abroad program friends jetted off to Bali. There, they rented a villa near the beach, which came with its own private chef and chauffeur.
Their luxury vacay, however, would soon come to a halt.
On March 3, their second day in Bali, the group went to the beach. As Ethan tells it, he was in the water when he decided to body surf an approaching wave. It reached him, and he jumped—but instead of riding it smoothly to shore, the wave knocked him over and under, flipping him onto his head and directly into the sand. When he tried to stand up, he realized he couldn’t.
His friends were watching from shore. “They thought I was kidding at first,” he says. “Then the second wave went over me and they realized I was serious.” Two of them came running, and between them, they were able to pull him out of the water and onto the sand. At that point, it became clear that something was really, really wrong.
From there, it all gets a little fuzzy for him, Ethan says. But for his parents, it was the beginning of a weeks-long nightmare full of unimaginably scary questions and too few answers.
“Ethan doesn’t remember this, but he was conscious when I got to the ICU,” Willis says. “He was just lying there—he said, ‘Dad I can’t feel anything. I can’t move.’
“Seeing your kid in pain…” He pauses for a second, collecting himself and his thoughts. “We just didn’t know what it would be like for him.”
Then the news came. Ethan had suffered an incomplete C3 to C5 injury: his C3 vertebra was fractured, his C4 was displaced, and his C5 was ruptured. An incomplete spinal injury means that vertebrae were damaged, but not completely severed, which allows for the possibility of connectivity—and corresponding movement—down the line. In short, Ethan’s injury was bad, but it could have been even worse. Still, the doctors told him then, it was unlikely he would ever walk again.
After the accident, Ethan was rushed to a hospital in Bali, where he underwent an emergency laminectomy. However, it soon became clear he couldn’t stay there. A national holiday, Nyepi, for which the entire island—including hospitals and transportation—would almost entirely shut down in commemoration, was approaching in a couple of days. At that point, Ethan’s state was too fragile to risk care under those circumstances. The BU Global Programs emergency response team had him set to be airlifted back to Sydney—until they received word that Sydney’s facilities didn’t have room for him.
By this point, Willis was en route to the other side of the world. When he landed in Hong Kong, his team informed him that they had arranged for Ethan to go to Singapore, to a Center of Medical Excellence. Willis immediately hopped on his flight to Bali, where he was able to see his son for the first time, as well as all of Ethan’s friends.
“I got to the ICU and this hospital was just full of BU students sleeping in the halls,” Willis recalls with a small chuckle. In a crazy turn of events, even their next-door neighbor from Newton was there, an Emory College student who had been on her own study abroad trip in Bali when she heard what happened, and rushed to the ICU.
From Bali, father and son took a small jet to Singapore, where they were joined by Terri. Ethan spent two and a half weeks in the Center of Medical Excellence, where doctors confirmed the improbability of Ethan ever walking again. Surgeons reconstructed his C5 vertebra and fused his C3 and C4 together through a bone graft to stabilize his neck. He also received treatment for pneumonia, facial fractures, an enormous blood clot (it went nearly from his forearm to his neck, his dad says), as well as pain management.
Then, it was time to come home.
The family knew they wanted him treated at Spaulding Rehab, whose three Massachusetts rehabilitation hospitals are ranked among the best in the country. (First, he’d make a pit stop at Mass General on landing.) But how do you get a critical care patient from one side of the world to the other?
“My sister is a trauma doctor and she told us that it’s better for spinal cord patients to take a commercial flight [than a small jet], where they build an ICU on the plane,” Willis says. And that’s exactly what Lufthansa did—the airline popped out a section of seats in the back of the plane and inserted a Patient Transport Unit for Ethan, “like Legos,” his dad says. (At one point, Ethan recalls, a very surprised passenger opened the door to where he was lying, thinking it was the bathroom.) What else made the Lufthansa flight remarkable? It was the first time Ethan, who had been on a liquid diet and had lost 30 pounds, had eaten solid food since the accident.
“They gave me first-class food,” he says, mentioning the tiramisu dessert.
At Boston’s Spaulding facility, doctors were a little more optimistic that Ethan would regain some movement in his lower body. At that point, he says, he could move his foot side-to-side, shrug his shoulders, and flex his bicep just a little—“the tiniest flex,” he calls it. The facility specialists quickly started treating him with electrical stimulation, or e-stim, which involves sending mild electrical currents to muscles and neurons to stimulate activity.
Eventually, it started working. As the weeks went by, he found that he could move more parts of his body and for longer periods of time. He and his therapists worked on strengthening his muscles, through exercises like modified planks, where he was strapped into a harness, and eventually putting weight on his lower body. He still struggled with sitting up—spinal patients often lose the ability to regulate their blood pressure. Sitting up at too steep an angle can cause their blood pressure to crash, leading them to pass out, or in Ethan’s case, to briefly lose his hearing, and one time, his vision.
“My expectations were pretty low,” Ethan says of his early days in rehabilitation. “I didn’t even know what to set for goals—it was more, OK, how long can I move this part of my body before I get tired? I was just waiting to see what happened.”
But he stayed positive. “Mentally, I was fine,” he says. “I was like, OK, this happened, and now I have to improve. And I was showing improvements every week, which definitely helped my mood a lot. If I didn’t have those clear improvements, I think it would have been a lot harder.”
That unflappability is typical of Ethan, his mom says. “With Ethan, there’s no hidden agenda. What you see is what you get,” Terri explains. “If he was miserable or depressed, it would be understandable. But Ethan is very chill.” Turning to her son, she says, “I don’t know how you do it!”
A video Spaulding made this past summer shows Ethan’s progress. You see him hit milestones throughout his five months as an inpatient, and later as an outpatient. There’s Ethan stretching with his physical therapist; Ethan in his power chair, which he learned to control by moving his head; Ethan walking on a treadmill strapped into an Iron Man–like contraption that moves his legs for him.
Not included in the video: Ethan’s 21st birthday party at Spaulding. Close to 50 people showed up to celebrate, Terri says, after Ethan’s friend Owen posted about it on Facebook. Later, they held another celebration at Tony C’s in Somerville, where Ethan got to have his first—and doctor-approved—beer. His choice? A Dogfish IPA.
Ethan spent five months as an inpatient at Spaulding Rehab’s hospital in Boston. Now, he goes back for regular physical therapy sessions, where he works on rebuilding his strength, among other goals. Photos by Cydney Scott
Ethan’s accomplishments are pretty remarkable, says Leanna Katz, a Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences occupational therapy adjunct professor, who worked with Ethan when he first got to Spaulding. “It was evident when I first met Ethan that his positive energy and motivation would take him far,” Katz says. “I’ve remained in contact with Ethan and his family, and it’s been an honor to witness his tremendous progress over a short period of time. I believe his great strides are likely due to his determination and his therapy team, as well as his supportive friends and family.
“Ethan serves as a reminder each day that anything is possible.”
And then came the day he achieved what he’d been told would never happen. Ethan walked.
It was a six- or seven-month process, he says, which involved relearning how to move his legs and foot muscles, and in what order. In the beginning, once he could put weight on his legs, his mom explains, his therapists would set him up on parallel bars (like at a ballet studio) with one therapist in front of him and one behind and “knock his foot forward,” essentially moving his legs for him. They would repeat that until he got tired.
With spinal cord injuries, there’s really no way of knowing what movement will come back and what won’t. The technology doesn’t yet exist to peek in on someone’s spine and pinpoint exactly what a patient can recover—all they can do is retrain their muscles through repetitive physical therapy and hope their body responds in kind. With Ethan, that’s exactly what happened.
Over time, he began to walk independently, using first a platform walker and eventually a regular walker. These days, he can even go up stairs (“I just need a railing,” he says) and exercise on an elliptical. For his Commencement this weekend, he’ll stride across the stage at the CAS ceremony to shake hands with Stan Sclaroff, dean of Arts & Sciences.
He’s not sure what’s next for him. He does plan on applying for jobs in the near future. But for now, he’s just thankful that he can graduate alongside Phoebe and his friends, even after taking his “gap year,” as his family likes to joke. He still struggles with arm function, so that’s something he wants to continue working on, as well as basic acts, like getting up from the couch by himself.
But his main goal, after the events of the past two and a half years? It’s simple—and classically Ethan.
“Enjoying things,” he says.
Find more Commencement coverage here
Ethan Wang Was Told He’d Never Walk Again. He’ll Walk on Stage for Commencement
Alene Bouranova is a Pacific Northwest native and a BU alum (COM’16). After earning a BS in journalism, she spent four years at Boston magazine writing, copyediting, and managing production for all publications. These days, she covers campus happenings, student life, and more for BU Today. Fun fact: she’s still using her Terrier card from 2013. When she’s not writing about campus, she’s trying to lose her Terrier card so BU will give her a new one. Profile
Alene Bouranova can be reached at [email protected]
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You are an incredible person, a role model for managing tragedy, adversity, information and expectations as well as the value of perseverance, optimism, goal setting with constant re-evaluation and adjustment.
Congratulations, Ethan. In addition to your wonderful, supportive network of family and friends, there have been many others rooting for you from afar. What a moment it will be when you walk across the stage.
What an inspirational story! Wishing Ethan congratulations on both Commencement and the progress he’s achieved since his injury.
Thank you sharing this wonderfully positive and inspirational account.
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