Professor's Unexpected Journey Reveals Undaunted Courage

The day before his birthday in June 2007, Ken Wiggins boarded an airplane and prepared for the long flight to Hong Kong. Wiggins and his wife, JoAnn, were headed there to teach; he in mathematics, she in business.

They had visited China before, getting to know the culture and the people and were looking forward to going back.

During the flight, Wiggins grew weak. He wondered if he would even survive the flight. Upon arrival, he stumbled into a waiting wheelchair. Those were the last steps he took unaided.

Within two days, Wiggin's body was completely paralyzed from his arms down. Wiggins had acute transverse myelitis caused by a vaccination he had received one week before leaving for Hong Kong. Instead of teaching, Wiggins spent the next six weeks in hospitals.

Once JoAnn's classes were over and Wiggins was ready, they took a medical evacuation flight on a commercial airliner to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. From there he was taken in a small air ambulance to St. Mary Medical Center in Walla Walla. "When we got to the hospital, there was a large contingent from the university holding a wide welcome banner," says Wiggins. "Seeing such a tangible display of support was a moving experience."

Wiggins spent more than five weeks in the hospital, primarily in the rehab unit adjusting to life in a wheelchair.

When he first arrived, he could not sit up for more than a few minutes without fainting. By the time he left the hospital, he could sit in a wheelchair for an extended time. However, he still could not stand without fainting, even with the help of a tilt table.

Physicians do not expect Wiggins to regain any strength in his legs. Wiggins, however, is more optimistic. Wiggins was paralyzed from his armpits down, but some strength has already returned to his lower back and abdomen. Though he cannot yet do sit-ups, Wiggins is gaining strength, and his balance has improved.

"It's surprising how many muscles a healthy person uses doing something as simple as sitting in a chair," says Wiggins.

By September 2007, Wiggins was back in the classroom, teaching a course in advanced calculus. By January 2008, he felt strong enough to resume chairing the mathematics department. Wiggins also started teaching a second class in numerical analysis. Using a computer projector, two overhead projectors, and three screens, Wiggins conducted his classes. Though the arrangement wasn't ideal, it allowed him to return to teaching.

In May, Wiggins purchased a car and had hand controls installed. The left-hand control lever operates by pushing to engage the brake, and rotating to activate the accelerator pedal. "Now I'm driving again, and that feels great!" Wiggins says with a grin.

Wiggins can even get in and out of the car by himself. He has learned to shift his weight just right to get out of the wheelchair and into the driver's seat. From there he disassembles his wheelchair into six pieces and stacks them in the car.

Over the months, Wiggin's close friends have been there to help. Several called him regularly while he was in the hospital in Hong Kong. Two of them built a ramp for easy access to his house. One took care of the yard work all summer. Once, a group brought Sabbath School to his hospital room. One friend continues to come to Wiggin's home almost every day to help him stretch.

"The university administration has been so supportive," says Wiggins. "At first I didn't want to accept the designated parking place they offered, but a friend wisely advised me to take it." Now he is always guaranteed a place close to the math building.

No one has been more supportive, however, than JoAnn. "She still has never said a single word to suggest that I have been an inconvenience to her in any way," says Wiggins.

Throughout this ordeal, Wiggins has remained positive. Grinning, he points out that having the chair is quite nice on shopping trips with his wife. He has often wished for a place to sit down, and now he has it, he jokes. "There are other advantages too," says Wiggins. "When I go uphill I get much-needed exercise. When I come back down I get a fast, sometimes thrilling ride!"

On a more serious note, Wiggins adds, "We sometimes find ourselves in twists and turns that we hardly could have anticipated, circumstances that change our lives dramatically and not necessarily for the better. At these times we can dwell on negativity and even despair, or we can follow the advice given by Paul in Phil. 4:8: '...whatever is true...whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.'"

"In truth, Ken has been the one who has encouraged us," says Ginger Ketting-Weller, academic administration vice president. "His upbeat attitude, his openness and sense of humor, his steady faith, and his commitment to teaching even while adjusting to his new challenges have all been an inspiration to faculty, staff and students."

September 01, 2008 / Walla Walla University

Becky St. Clair, WWU GLEANER correspondent