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BYU grad overcomes life-changing accident to finish degrees, regain independence

First Published      Last Updated May 22 2017 02:46 pm

Stephen Merrill didn’t let spinal fracture, paralysis stop him from obtaining two BYU degrees.

Stephen Merrill stepped onto Brigham Young University's campus his freshman year with the same excitement and hope for the future that many newcomers feel.

But just before second-semester finals in April 2011, a gymnastics accident left Merrill paralyzed from his chest down with only partial movement in his shoulders.

"Before I was injured, I was just like any other freshman growing up and getting freedom. And all of a sudden that was taken away," said Merrill, now 24.

"That was a big U-turn for me," he recalled. "I went from being on top of the world to, I can't do anything on my own."




After his long recovery and gradual return to the classroom, Merrill will graduate Thursday from LDS Church-owned BYU, with not only an undergraduate degree in actuarial science, but also an integrated master's degree in applied statistics.

Merrill is one of 4,270 students receiving degrees at BYU's commencement ceremony at 4 p.m. Thursday at the Marriott Center in Provo.

More than 5,800 degrees will be handed out at this year's graduation, according to university data, and 60 percent of those graduating are out-of-state students like Merrill, who is originally from Arizona.

Elder Bradley D. Foster, a general authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will be the ceremony's presiding Mormon authority and speaker.

Merrill broke his neck jumping from a platform into a foam pit at an indoor gymnastic park with friends. He leapt into the pit, shot straight through the foam to the floor and landed on his head — fracturing his cervical spine.

After surgery and almost two weeks in the intensive care unit at Utah Valley Hospital in Provo, Merrill was flown to Phoenix to recover, closer to his family in nearby Chandler. The eldest of five siblings spent about a year doing in- and outpatient therapy at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center, where he worked to regain movement and strengthen his body.

There were moments in those first years after the accident, Merrill said, when graduating from college at all seemed daunting.

"If I could go back in time and look forward to now, I think I would be pretty impressed," he said. "I am encouraged I got to this point where I am getting around relatively independently. I feel comfortable with asking others for help when I need it."

In summer 2012, Merrill and his family moved to Utah after he started doing spinal therapy at Neuroworx, an outpatient paralysis-care center in South Jordan.

Merrill slowly began adding credit hours at BYU into his schedule as he adjusted to his new lifestyle. By fall 2013, with help from home aides, he had transitioned to living independently in Provo with some friends and was gradually increasing his course work.

Merrill was accepted into BYU's integrated applied statistics master's program and started his studies in 2015 — marking his first semester back as a full-time student. For the past two years, Merrill has carried a full class load while maintaining his daily health regimen and fitting in a social life.

He spent two summers working internships at Hill Air Force Base, which, he said, helped him land a job after graduation as a system engineer working on missile-defense systems.

Merrill said he now worries more about how soon he can accomplish his goals in life rather than whether he can achieve them at all.

"I feel pretty proud of myself," he said. "The master's program was quite challenging, and I stretched myself a lot and have grown so much.

"I feel much more confident about tackling whatever challenges that come up for me."

kgifford@sltrib.com

Twitter: @kelgiffo

 

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