Thousands of students will say farewell to Eastern Kentucky University in May. They will cross the commencement stage, receive their diplomas and throw their caps into the air as they celebrate another milestone.
For Jeffrey Guest, however, graduating college is not just another accomplishment. It’s proof that the bad things that happen to us don’t have to define us. It’s the start of a new chapter, one where he has a college degree and job to support his son, one where he might walk for the first time in eight years.
Eight years ago, Guest was living the dream. After graduating from Danville High School in 2007, he was playing football on a scholarship at Campbellsville University. He was a new father to son Braylon. He was surrounded by friends and family who cheered him on at every game.
That dream came to a grinding halt in the fall of 2009. Guest was traveling to Lincoln County to pick up a friend when the left front tire on his Jeep Cherokee blew out. As he tried to pull over, the blown tire hit a ditch, causing his vehicle to flip.
The 21-year-old Guest was then airlifted to University of Kentucky Hospital, where doctors found that his vertebrae was crushed into several pieces. They cut off a piece of his pelvic bone and fused it to what was left of his vertebrae.
The accident left Guest paralyzed from the waist down.
The ensuing weeks were initially filled with shock and, later, sadness. Before his wreck, Guest was a dedicated student and a talented athlete. He had a bright future that most only dream of, and, in an instant, that all came crashing down.
Many would have been angry, but Guest was determined. “I didn’t know what the outcome was going to be, but I told myself I would fight back and figure out a way to come out of the chair at some point in life.”
That fight would turn out to be more challenging than he ever expected, but Guest never gave up hope.
The months immediately following the wreck were filled with therapy and rehabilitation. He first went to Cardinal Hill Hospital in Lexington for therapy, and then to SciStep in Mason, Ohio, where he stayed for another month.
While there, Guest’s elementary school football coach, Stuart Critchfield, held a fundraiser to help Guest raise money for a stem cell surgery that would give him the opportunity to walk again. Unfortunately, those efforts were met with dead ends. Every time they found a company that looked hopeful, it would close or disappear.
Guest eventually returned to therapy, this time at the Frazier Rehab Institute at the Jewish Medical Campus in Louisville. There, he underwent assessments for a clinical trial, and Guest wondered if perhaps he was finally getting his chance.
Once again, he came up empty-handed, as only one person was selected for the trial, and Guest was among the thousands who didn’t make the cut.
Guest was still committed to walking again, but decided it was best to pause the trials for a while. Watching his brother, Jordan Guest, and cousin, Daylan Morris, graduate from EKU inspired Guest to return to school. He chose EKU in hopes of continuing the family tradition.
In the fall of 2013, Guest officially began his journey as a Colonel. After some exploration, he decided to major in risk management and insurance (RMI). “I picked that field because of Burke Christensen (RMI professor and Robert B. Morgan chair of insurance). I love his energy in the classroom, and he really made me want to learn more about RMI.”
Christensen feels equally honored to know Guest. “To know Guest is to like him,” he declared. Along with his protégé’s people skills, Guest’s work ethic also impressed Christensen. “Like most highly-skilled athletes, Jeff is willing to work hard in preparation so that he performs well at game time.”
Most importantly, Christensen was inspired by Guest’s perseverance in the face of hardship. “Some would have given up or become angry at the unfairness of life. I have never heard Jeff complain about his injuries. Compared to what Jeff lost, my problems are small. He is an inspiration to all of us to overcome the small problems we face each day.”
Guest has enjoyed his time at Eastern, but is excited for his next adventure. In a few weeks, he will graduate with his bachelor’s degree and begin seeking employment in the insurance field. As exciting as all that is, Guest has an even higher goal: the chance to walk again.
Now 38, Guest is finally seeing his dream come true. While scrolling through a spinal cord injury group on Facebook, he saw an article about a company called Unique Access in Bangkok, Thailand, which offers a two-part procedure consisting of a stem cell injection and an epidural stimulator. During the injection, Guest will receive as many as 100 million stem cells into his body, some directly in the site of the injury and some via IV. Then, an epidural stimulator device will be implanted in his lower back that sends electrons to the damaged nerves, telling them to move.
The stem cell treatment by itself carries an 80 percent success rate, while both procedures together boast a 95 to 100 percent success rate.
Guest knows that even with the procedure, it will be a difficult path. He will still have to undergo physical and aqua therapy, and it could be a while before he is fully able to walk again. But those are only minor details. The mere thought of being able to feel his legs and wiggle his toes is enough to excite him.
Guest is hoping to have the procedure done by August or September, but it will cost a whopping $92,000. A Go Fund Me page has raised almost $50,000 already. To donate to Guest’s treatment, visit https://www.gofundme.com/jeffwalks.
Any funds raised will only pay for the treatment, not travel expenses. Anything beyond the $92,000 will be donated to the Christopher Reeve Foundation, which funds spinal cord and stem cell research in the U.S.
Throughout this experience, Guest has remained extremely thankful for his family. As a child, he recalls his mother and grandmother always teaching him to appreciate what he has, a trait that helped him through his post-accident ordeal. He admits that he still has days of sadness, but tries to be positive and grateful for what he does have.
As a single father, he also hopes to set a good example for his son, Braylon, now 9. Because Braylon was so young at the time of his father’s accident, he can only remember his dad in a wheelchair.
Guest sees a lot of himself in his son. “He is very athletic. His favorite sports are baseball and basketball.” With this procedure, Guest may able to play those sports with his son. In the meantime, Guest hopes to teach Braylon what’s truly important in life.
“I want him to see life as positive and to know that you have to work hard and keep fighting in order to be successful. Most important thing is you just have to be happy.”
— by Yasmin White, Student Writer, EKU Communications and Brand Management