Graduation is always a special day, not just for the grads but for their families and loved ones. It’s a heartwarming moment to see them cross the stage to accept their diploma, a celebration of how far they’ve come over the years.
That’s especially true for one teen—who left the crowd stunned with what he did at his high school graduation.
Alex McEwan, a 17-year-old from Calgary, used to love playing football and participating in the cadets. But all that came to an end on December 21, 2015, when a tragic accident changed his life forever.
It was Alex’s 15th birthday, and his friends got him to go tobogganing that night—even though there was a risk of danger.
“We knew the light posts were there. We just lined up in between them and hoped that we wouldn’t hit anything,” Alex told Global News at the time.
It was all fun and games until Alex got into an accident—and realized he couldn’t feel his legs.
“I went down the hill, my toboggan turned on me, and I went head first into a light post—breaking my spine.”
He was rushed to the hospital—and told he would be paralyzed for life.
It was devastating news, but the teen quickly learned to accept this new reality.
“It’s tough to know that everything you’ve done before you can’t do now,” Alex told CTV after the accident. “You have to come to terms with things like this because, if you don’t, it’s gonna eat you up.”
Over two years have passed since the accident, and Alex remains in a wheelchair.
He’s continued to attend school, and on June 4, he graduated from Bowness High School.
But when he crossed the stage to accept his diploma, he did something no one expected:
Everyone burst into applause as Alex entered walking with the help of a robotic exoskeleton. It was the first time anyone had seen him out of his wheelchair in years.
It was a surprise to nearly everyone, including some of his family.
“I’m waiting for the wheelchair and I see him slowly walking and, well, I’m bawling and I say to the people beside me, ‘That’s my grandson,’” his grandmother, Rita Efthimiou, told Global News. “It was very emotional.”
But the incredible moment came after much practice and determination.
Walking at graduation was a major goal for Alex. “This is my day,” he said. “I want to make this my day.”
He got the chance when he was given a rare opportunity to use an advanced exoskeleton suit, part of a research project funded by the Calgary Health Trust through the Alberta Paraplegic Foundation and Hotchkiss Brain Institute.
It was an advanced piece of tech, but that doesn’t mean this was a walk in the park. Alex had to go through extensive training with Kyle McIntosh, a neurological-physiotherapist at Foothills Medical Center, to get used to the complex movement system.
“It is very, very difficult to do,” McIntosh told CTV. “He spent a good amount of time training to get ready for this day.”
But for Alex, the hard work was worth it to “get his legs back,” if only for one special day.
“It was an amazing feeling,” Alex told Global News. “I had a hard time keeping it together but thankfully I was able to focus on the walking and that kept me composed.”
“It was unreal. I will never get a feeling like that again in my life.”
While his parents knew he was preparing to walk, the moment still overwhelmed them.
“I knew it was coming and I was waiting with anticipation and when I saw him and just the cheering and standing ovation,” his mother, Stella McEwan, said.
After the ceremony, Alex made sure to hug anyone who wanted to, knowing it might be the last opportunity he’d be able to standing up.
It looks like Alex will remain in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, but he hopes the moment inspires others.
“There’s always hope something good will come out of something negative,” he told CTV. “My injury was a negative but a lot of good things have come out of it.”
“This is one of them. I got an amazing graduation.”