Blazing a Trail
Residence life staff coordinated special accommodations that would a student to comfortably live on campus.
December 15, 2017
Dawud Hamdan was just 13 years old when his life changed forever. It was a Friday in June of 2010 and he was anxiously awaiting the end of his final period. An active eighth grader who loved to be outdoors, Hamden was already letting his mind wander to his afternoon activities and weekend plans.
That’s when he first felt it. It started as a sharp pain in his upper shoulders and back. Within moments his arms and hands were numb. Sitting over his desk, he turned to a friend to complain about the pain. Minutes later it was unbearable.
After asking his teacher for permission to go to the nurse’s office, he made his way to the door. Hunched over with his arms crossed and hands seemingly locked into place, he bent down and attempted to turn the handle with his elbows.
Struggling to walk, he almost collapsed halfway down the hallway. With tears streaming down his face, Hamdan yelled in agony, but marshalled on. It was perhaps the longest two minutes of his young life.
Finally arriving to find a substitute nurse, he took a seat and asked her to call 9-1-1. When the paramedics arrived with a stretcher, they asked if he could stand. Having already lost full control of his body, he couldn’t.
Initially taken to the Capital Health Regional Medical Center in Trenton, N.J, the cause of Hamdan’s sudden pain remained a mystery for several hours. Unable to pinpoint its origin, doctors transferred him to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Undergoing an MRI, CAT scan, and battery of other tests, they finally identified the culprit, transverse myelitis.
A neurological condition, transverse myelitis causes inflammation along a segment of the spinal cord. The pressure created interrupts messages that nerves send throughout the body, resulting in pain, muscle weakness, sensory problems, and/or paralysis.
“Nobody really knows what caused it,” says Hamdan. “The prognosis depends from person-to-person. For me, it was a more severe case because the inflammation covered a large area from the top of my neck to the center of my back.”
Hamdan spent the majority of the next six weeks in the intensive care unit (ICU). Unable to breathe on his own, he was intubated. After a month of intubation, doctors considered performing a tracheostomy. At the 11th hour, he began to show signs of improvement, staving off the procedure.
“This school really helps a lot. The whole experience really helped skyrocket my self-confidence and my motivation to do things.”
But while Hamdan was finally able to breathe on his own, the road to recovery was just beginning. Multiple surgeries, collapsed lungs, and a bout with pancreatitis were just a few of the complications. Ultimately, he even developed severe scoliosis.
“It took me a while to come to terms with what was happening and what my future looked like,” Hamdan says. “I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to be able to walk again, and I’m still not sure. It was difficult for everyone in my family, but I had to accept it before anybody else could. Once I did, I started thinking that I had to do this for them. They’ve been taking care of me and I may as well be strong mentally to help provide some stability.”
Eventually transferred to the Center for Rehabilitation at the Children’s Hospital, Hamdan began the painstaking work of rebuilding his strength. At first, he needed help with everything. He couldn’t use his hands and needed assistance eating and drinking. He even had trouble swallowing.
But as the weeks turned to months, Hamdan began to make progress. With time he was learning to do more things on his own. Despite missing the beginning of his freshman year of high school, he resumed his studies with the help of a school-appointed aide. Over the next couple of years, he underwent several procedures that increased the mobility in his arms and the grip in his hands. Before he knew it, it was time to start thinking about college, the only question was where.
“Commuting would be really hard for me to do,” says Hamdan. “I originally wanted to go to Monmouth University, but they didn’t have the accommodations for me to live there. My dad and I were always on the phone trying to get connected with people from different universities to see if any of them could offer me any special living arrangements.”
Initially on the waitlist at Rutgers, Hamdan also explored several schools in the Philadelphia area, but struggled to find the right fit. Following a visit to Temple in the fall of his senior year, he finally got the news he’d been waiting for.
“It was pretty quiet on the car ride home [from Temple] and tensions were high,” Hamdan says. “We were wondering what we were going to do, then all of a sudden I got an email from Rutgers saying congratulations. I had visited before and everything seemed really promising. It was a blessing and a complete sensation of relief.”
During the summer prior to his freshman year, Hamdan worked diligently to ready himself for the rigors of collegiate life. Physically, he needed to learn to live independently. Without his family to rely on, he knew he’d be on his own for the majority of the day. Mentally, he needed to come out of his shell. Playing the role of an introvert wasn’t going to help him win over new friends.
“Going away to college is scary for everyone, but I was really excited to be on my own and feel independent,” says Hamdan. “I’m not someone who likes to ask for help. I like to try things myself first and sometimes I get stubborn. But I knew I had to ask [for help] when I needed it.”
In July of 2014 he did just that, reaching out to Residence Life’s student support and accommodations staff. With the school year around the corner, Hamdan and his family toured several living spaces on campus to go over his options.
“When I met him, I just knew that this was a student with great potential,” said assistant director of student support, Justin Kelley. “I had a good sense that he was going to need a lot of modifications in order to be successful, but I believe that he is going to do some great things and we just needed to do what we had to, to get him here.”
Due in part to Hamdan’s interest in the sciences and a large first-year population, Residence Life identified Busch Engineering, Science, and Technology (B.E.S.T.) Hall as his future home. But with just two months before the start of the academic year, there was plenty of work to be done.
With limited dexterity in his hands, Hamdan couldn’t properly operate the automated door system in the building’s entryways, which required a student to swipe their ID card through a reader. To compensate, Kelley worked to have an access system implemented that would allow Hamden to simply tap his ID. A similar automated door system also needed to be installed in his suite.
Inside his space, Hamdan’s furniture had to accommodate his motorized wheelchair, including a customized desk that allowed him to comfortably use the tabletop while seated. The university’s standard microfridge, which traditionally had a low profile, needed to be raised to allow for easier access. In the bathroom, handrails were added while a bench and adjustable head were installed in the shower.
In addition to modifications to physical spaces, Kelley also worked with several nursing agencies to provide Hamdan’s aides with access to B.E.S.T. Hall and his suite. Kelley also acted as his liaison to several campus partners, including the Office of Disability Services, transportation services, grounds, and facilities to ensure the success of Hamdan’s on-campus experience.
Despite the short time window and extensive checklist, by September, all of Hamdan’s special accommodations were in place. With the school year set to begin, there was nothing left for Hamdan to do but move in.
“It was frantic,” says Hamdan. “I had a lot of stuff. I know my parents were really nervous just leaving me. It was kind of tough [for me] too. I spent a lot of time with my family at home and when they left I started to feel homesick.”
With his parents gone, Hamdan found himself alone for the first time. Who was he going to talk to? Would anyone want to talk to him? How was he going to do things on his own?
As questions swirled around his mind, the start of B.E.S.T. Hall’s welcome event approached. Designed to help acclimate residents to their new community, Kelley coordinated with Residence Life’s campus staff to ensure that the day’s programming was modified to allow for Hamdan’s full participation. Hamdan just needed to show up.
“I remember pacing around my room,” says Hamdan. “I kept going back and forth toward the door. It was kind of stressful and I was really contemplating not going, but I told myself that if I didn’t go out there, I wasn’t going to meet or see anybody.”
Before residence life staff could check on Hamdan, he finally forced himself out the door. Making his way to the courtyard, he threw himself into every activity. Surrounded by a group of new, friendly faces, Hamdan quickly overcame his reservations. From then on, he was off to the races.
Over the next several years, Hamdan settled into a routine. He has a set of nurses visit him in the morning and another in the evening. The rest of the day he is on his own and has learned to cope. He was able to upgrade his powered chair to a model that now allows him to move to a standing position or even lay back for a quick nap.
He fell into a group of friends which included his former resident assistant. There were video game tournaments, prank wars involving makeshift Ouija boards, and late nights. As a resident of B.E.S.T. Hall, he was also required to maintain active participation in the community and its events, which he attended regularly.
“I had FOMO,” Hamdan says with a smile. “I didn’t want to go to sleep until everyone else went to bed. I didn’t want to miss out on anything. I’m pretty sure the friends I’ve made here are the people I’ll be hanging out with the rest of my life.”
After three years on Busch Campus, Hamdan’s friends decided it was time for a change of scenery. They were looking to move to move to Livingston Campus and wanted him to go with them.
Prior to his freshman year, Hamdan had considered the Livingston Apartments as a potential space. At the time, it was decided B.E.S.T. Hall would be a better fit due to the Livingston Apartments’ mostly upperclass population. Now a senior, Hamdan was ready to make the move with his friends, if for no other reason than a fear of missing out.
“I called Justin and asked him to do me a favor and right away he said they’d try to move me,” says Hamdan. “This school really helps a lot. The whole experience really helped skyrocket my self-confidence and my motivation to do things. I was never turned down for anything and I was able to participate in whatever was going on. It wasn’t difficult here, it came naturally.”
Dusting off Hamdan’s special accommodation plans, Kelley went to work on modifying a Livingston Apartment studio to prepare it for the 2017-18 academic year. Beyond keeping him with his friends, Kelley believes Hamdan reserves the right to explore different campuses and living options, as would any other resident.
In the years since Hamdan’s arrival, other students with similar needs have made the decision to live on campus. Hamdan’s former space at B.E.S.T. Hall is currently occupied by another student who required special accommodations. And when Hamdan graduates, his newly outfitted studio at the Livingston Apartments will serve as another option for those in need.
“For anyone in my position, I would say, its ok to be scared, but just keep moving forward,” says Hamdan. “Things happen in the past that you just have to let go. If you dwell on the past too much, you’re going to be stuck there. Instead, just try to look into the future and live in the now. Don’t let anything or anyone tell you, you can’t do it.”