CHATOM, Ala. — When Timothy J. Atchison regained consciousness, he was drenched in blood and pinned in his car on the side of a dark rural road.
"I was just pouring blood," said Atchison, 21, who recoiled in pain when he tried to drag himself through a window of the wrecked Pontiac he had gotten for high school graduation. "I didn't know if I was going to bleed to death or not."
Then, Atchison realized that his legs felt strangely huge — and completely numb. He was paralyzed from the chest down.
"I was just praying — asking for forgiveness and thanking God for keeping me alive," said Atchison, who was trapped at least an hour before rescuers freed him. "I said, 'From here on out, I'm going to live for you and nothing else.' I never got down after that. I figure that's what must have kept me up — God keeping me up."
That sense of destiny propelled Atchison when he faced another shock just seven days later: Doctors asked him to volunteer to be the first person to have an experimental drug made from human embryonic stem cells injected into his body.
"We were just stunned," said Atchison, who was with his mother and grandfather when researchers approached him. "We were like, 'Woo, really?' We were all just kind of in awe."
Atchison, known to friends and family as T.J., described the events during an interview last week with The Washington Post — his first detailed account since disclosing his carefully guarded identity to The Post. Atchison's story reveals provocative insights into one of the most closely watched medical experiments, including what some may see as an irony: that a treatment condemned on moral and religious grounds is viewed by the first person to pioneer the therapy, and his family, as part of God's plan.
"It wasn't just luck, or chance," said Atchison, who thinks, six months after the treatment, that he may be feeling the first signs that the cells are helping him.
"It was meant to be."
Atchison, whose Sept. 25 crash occurred while visiting home during his second semester at the University of South Alabama College of Nursing, had heard about embryonic stem cells' potentially revolutionary power to morph into almost any tissue in the body, as well as their infamy because days-old embryos are destroyed to get them.
"I didn't know as much about it then as I know now. I did know that stem cells could be used to cure all kinds of things," Atchison said, swiveling in his wheelchair, which like his car and many other belongings is the University of Alabama football team's crimson. "I was thinking like 50 years down the road or something like that."
Raised Baptist in a small town where the main road has more churches than fast-food restaurants, Atchison nonetheless has no moral qualms about launching the first U.S. government-sanctioned attempt to study a treatment using embryonic stem cells in people. The cells implanted into his spine were obtained from embryos being discarded at fertility clinics, he notes.
"It's not life. It's not like they're coming from an aborted fetus or anything like that. They were going to be thrown away," he said. "Once they explained to me where the stem cells were coming from, once I learned that, I was OK with it."
After the stem cell procedure at Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Atchison spent three months undergoing the center's standard program, learning how to bathe, cook and care for himself. But he had to keep his involvement in the study secret, even when a friend in rehab wished aloud he could get stem cells so he could walk again.
"I kind of wanted to tell him, 'Hey, you know it could be closer than you think? Because it's already happened,"' he said. "I just didn't want him to feel upset about me getting it or anything like that. I didn't want him to think I was going to be able to walk because of this."
And although his doctors have stressed that they gave him a very low dose primarily to look for any adverse side effects, Atchison believes the cells may already be helping him. In studies involving rats, partially paralyzed animals that received the cells regained the ability to move.
In recent weeks, after months of neither feeling nor being able to move anything below his chest, Atchison said he has begun to get some very slight sensation: He can feel relief when he lifts a bowling ball off his lap and discern discomfort when he pulls on hairs on some parts of his legs. He has also strengthened his abdomen.
"That's something that just happened recently. It's just slowly progressed more and more," he said, noting that rodents that received the cells did not start to regain movement until nine months after being treated.
Spinal cord injury experts stress that patients such as Atchison can regain some sensation and movement on their own, and that it is simply impossible to know whether the cells are helping based on a single subject. Advocates for spinal cord injury patients, while thrilled by the study, worry about raising false hope.
"I caution people: Don't expect miracles that these patients are going to automatically jump out of their wheelchairs and run all over the place," said Daniel Heumann, who is on the board of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.