Reporter: Peter Overton
Producer: Nick Greenaway
"You'll never walk again."
How would you feel hearing those words?
And how would you go living with them for the rest of your life?
Peter Overton met two determined young Australians who refuse to accept the doctor's verdict.
Josh Clift and Amanda Boxtel believed there had to be a way to get their legs working again.
So they travelled halfway around the world in search of a miracle, to a place that's right at the cutting edge of spinal research.
And with doctors recently announcing they've just helped a paraplegic to stand up and move, it seems that miracle isn't very far away.
To support Josh Clift and follow his progress, visit www.kissthefrog.org.au
PETER OVERTON: There’s nothing quite like the theatrics of American gridiron. Both on and off the field, it’s a world away from the Hunter Valley and the no-frill rugby matches Josh Clift used to star in. Josh loves it all. But this 28-year-old farmer was never one to sit on the sidelines.
JOSH: I’d given anything to be out there putting a hit on someone or taking a hit up myself. And I think my mum would crucify me if she saw me out there these days.
PETER OVERTON: Josh became a quadriplegic through a chain of disaster that almost defies belief. Now, he’s fighting back. Here in Atlanta, at the Shepherd Center. The most advanced facility in the world for spinal injuries.
JOSH: From day one I’ve never had a dream where I’m not walking. I’ve never pictured myself not walking.
PETER OVERTON: Like me?
JOSH CLIFT: Not that quick but the reality is I’d say to be walking on a walking stick, that would be heaven for me.
AMANDA: Whatever movement that he’s got and feeling below his level of injury he needs to work, work, work at it so that maybe he’ll be able to do it one day – and I believe this man can.
PETER OVERTON: So you get a kick out of seeing him on this?
AMANDA: Oh an absolute kick out it, no pun intended yeah. Yeah.
PETER OVERTON: Amanda Boxtel is another extraordinary Australian I met at the Shepherd Center. Together, she and Josh are a formidable pair, both set on defying conventional medical wisdom about their paralysis.
AMANDA: Just those words, “you’ll never walk again.” It was like being given a death sentence. And from that moment I just became determined, determined to prove the doctor wrong.
PETER OVERTON: It’s certainly not beach weather though.
AMANDA: I know, it’s not beach weather. Be nice to be in a bikini right now, but no, I love it.
PETER OVERTON: But for all Amanda’s sheer spirit, it’s a hard road she’s been travelling on for 18 years now.
AMANDA: I just long to run on the sand and feel the sand squeak in between my toes and have waves chase me…and I can’t.
PETER OVERTON: For Josh to realise his dream of walking again, means up to six hours of exhausting therapy a day. Josh has a chance because his spinal cord, although severely damaged, wasn’t severed. Ever feel like curling up in a ball and say, ‘you know what? This is all too hard’?
JOSH: That’s the easy option. But it definitely happens. Yeah, everyone has bad days, shit days, that’s life. There’s always someone worse off than you.
PETER OVERTON: Josh Clift was a champion schoolboy footballer for Sydney’s St Joseph’s College, later representing New South Wales Country. But then in July 2008, in this incident in the Scone versus Tamworth match, Josh’s football career came to a sickening halt.
JOSH: I heard a noise in the tackle and just I don’t know, had a sixth sense something had just drastically gone wrong and I think, thought I’d broken my neck.
PETER OVERTON: And what was the noise?
JOSH: A thousand plates breaking I guess, the crack.
PETER OVERTON: Josh crunched three vertebrae, but luck was on his side – this time. At Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital, a plate was permanently screwed into his neck, giving him a second chance. Josh was able to walk out of hospital, and within weeks was rounding up the cattle, being a farmer. Life was back on track but only for a moment. Late one night and within sight of home, an exhausted Josh fell asleep at the wheel of his ute on this stretch of road. What happened next, well that’s almost too cruel to be true.
JOSH: I woke up and as I was about to hit a fence, I over-corrected. The tyre clipped a pothole and flipped, flipped the car numerous times.
PETER OVERTON: It was close to midnight when the phone rang at the Clift homestead. Josh’s dad Jonathan raced down to the crash site.
JONATHAN: It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen you know, cause he was just in the middle of the road in a pool of blood and unconscious and I thought, ‘oh Jeez,’ you know. ‘How can you go through this again?’
JOSH: I thought I was an amputee. When I first woke up, all I felt was I was a head but then they said, ‘you’ve broken your neck again, you’re a quadriplegic’. I thought, ‘geez.’ This didn’t feel like the first time.
PETER OVERTON: In the space of three months, Josh had broken his neck twice but here in the farming heartland of the New South Wales Hunter Valley, they breed them tough. And so in 2009, Josh and his family made the difficult decision to set out in pursuit of a miracle.
WENDY: Obviously he had teary moments and things but he said, ‘why me?’ and I said, ‘well because you’ll cope, you’re really strong’ and I think he has proven that.
PETER OVERTON: In spades.
WENDY: In spades.
PETER OVERTON: Have you ever wavered, Wendy?
WENDY: Oh, of course I do.
PETER OVERTON: Mmm.
WENDY: Yeah. That’s in the shower, behind the scenes, on the car trip on my own.
PETER OVERTON: What could the Shepherd Center offer you that Australia couldn’t?
JOSH: The fact that instead of doing one hour of physio a day, I was going straight into six hours of intense therapy.
PETER OVERTON: And it’s not a criticism of Australia is it?
JOSH: It’s not a criticism, it’s just the fact is we’re just so far behind.
PETER OVERTON: And it’s in Atlanta you realise how far behind we are. Here, Amanda Boxtel has come to demonstrate a revolutionary invention called eLEGS.
AMANDA: I love it. We’re all standing together…mostly. Josh, you and I next time, huh? G’day. I get to be an Aussie again, hi, give me a high five. Don’t push me over. But slow and steady wins a race right?
PETER OVERTON: Absolutely. So I’ll keep at your pace. eLEGS could be the most significant development since the wheelchair was invented 500 years ago. But this is freedom?
AMANDA: This is freedom.
PETER OVERTON: Amanda’s arm movements send signals to a small computer in her backpack to activate battery-powered legs.
AMANDA: So it’s gesture-activated and there’s a censor in the bottom of the crutch so that I’m able to just literally place a crutch and take a step, place a crutch and take a step. And it’s the coolest thing because it’s independence. I mean, this is it.
PETER OVERTON: Originally from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Amanda was paralysed 18 years ago in a skiing accident in Aspen, Colorado. She too, refused to accept the diagnosis she was forever bound to her wheelchair.
PETER OVERTON: They call you ‘the test pilot’.
AMANDA: Not to be confused with ‘crash test dummy’. I’m a test pilot and I can’t get enough air time. And I’ve got about 20 hours clocked under my belt under these legs. I get to leg up now. Isn’t that cool?
PETER OVERTON: You are cool.
AMANDA: One of the most beautiful things is now I get to have real hugs.
PETER OVERTON: Is that an invitation?
AMANDA: Yeah! Do you want a hug?
PETER OVERTON: Yeah, I’ll give you a hug. For all the joy eLEGS brings Amanda, there’s still years of research before this technology is broadly available. But the Shepherd Center is at the forefront of another revolution – Stem cell treatment. Dr Donald Leslie is supervising some of the first formal tests on the controversial science of taking cells from a human embryo and injectING them into a patient. It’s already worked on paralysed rats.
DOCTOR DONALD LESLIE: A stem cell is a cell that is not matured yet and you take a single cell, you place that right at the area where the spinal cord is injured, with hopes that that cell will transform into more cells which will allow recovery of the neuro process.
PETER OVERTON: So a stem cell is like a repair kit?
DOCTOR DONALD LESLIE: Hopefully a repair kit, that’s what we want it to do.
PETER OVERTON: Amanda Boxtel hasn’t waited for the results of formal studies, instead, heading to India for her stem cell treatment. It’s unregulated and some say reckless, but Amanda swears by the results.
AMANDA: Because of stem cells I’m the proud owner of quads, glutes, hamstrings, abductors, adductors, flickers of calf muscles. I can pee on my own, bowels are coming back and I can orgasm for the first time in 18 years. I mean, what’s not to love about that?
PETER OVERTON: Happy days. Stem cells IS controversy. What do you say to the objectors?
JOSH: I think they need to sit in a wheelchair.
PETER OVERTON: ‘Walk in my shoes, or sit in my wheelchair.’
JOSH: Yes, that’s it. It’s the way of the future and for people to be against it, like it’s kind of like being against a cure to cancer.
PETER OVERTON: Do you want more?
JOSH: That’s fine. It’s not a Tooheys, brother.
PETER OVERTON: No, it’s not a Tooheys. Josh hopes stem cell treatment could one day work for him. Meanwhile, thanks to this rehab program, he can now move his arms and has some sensation in his legs that incredibly, are back to the same size as his rugby days. The milestones may be slow in coming, but they are monumental when they arrive. Like when Josh was first able to move this frame.
JOSH: We probably walked six metres and it was the longest six metres of my life, but yeah, it eclipsed anything I’ve achieved sporting-wise previously so yeah, it’s a hard game and it’s a pretty tough fight but it’s easily the most satisfying.
PETER OVERTON: Can you win this boxing match?
JOSH: Yeah. Yeah, I’ll win but just underestimated him a bit in the first few rounds.