Jennifer Bou Lahoud walks confidently, with purpose, in front of her USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences classmates with her diploma in hand. In her mind’s eye, at least, she walks as she used to, before the accident — the way she dreams she’ll someday walk again.
In 2008, the 16-year-old from West Covina, Calif., went on a ski trip with family and friends that took a tragic turn. Bou Lahoud skidded off her sled and slammed into a bed of rocks and packed snow.
“The moment I landed, I felt paralyzed,” she said. Everything she knew was about to change.
A teen life reconstructed
Physicians first predicted she might never regain use of her legs. But an MRI showed her spinal cord might still be intact, which meant a chance to walk again. She was hopeful, but after nine bolts, two steel rods, and a piece of her hipbone were fused to her vertebrae through a five-hour surgery, she still couldn’t feel any sensation in the lower half of her body.
“Just the day before I was running up and down the hill, and now I was facing life in a wheelchair,” she said.
Bou Lahoud didn’t lose hope. Her spine was injured, but the determination and competitive spirit that made her a star athlete and straight-A student before the accident were stronger than ever.
Every morning when the therapists came in, I would say, ‘You will see me walk again.’
Jennifer Bou Lahoud
“Every morning when the therapists came in, I would say, ‘You will see me walk again,’” she said.
The road to USC
Through months of intensive physical therapy and strong support from her parents, sister and brother, Bou Lahoud eventually regained the ability to stand and take steps with assistance. Determined not to fall behind in classes, she finished high school on time and in good academic standing. She was unsure how she could attend or afford college, though, until she found out about USC’s Physically Challenged Athletes Scholarship Fund, supported through the Swim with Mike program. The fund helps aspiring college students who’ve suffered serious illness or injuries.
She jumped at the opportunity, applying both to USC and the scholarship program. “Within the same week, I got both acceptance letters and I knew that I was going to do whatever it took to make it work,” she said.
Bou Lahoud pursued a double major in neuroscience and psychology, hoping to integrate the two fields into tangible research that will help other recovering spinal cord injury patients. She plans to attend grad school and earn a PhD in cognitive neuroscience, and continue to bring more awareness to the needs of those with spinal cord injuries.
And she’s still working hard to realize her dream of walking again.