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Because he could

Spring engineering graduate completes degree after life-altering injury

special feature: Class of 2023

The Gazette’s latest special feature celebrates Memorial’s newest alumni.

By Jackey Locke

In the summer of 2019, spring graduate Andrew Coombs could see the Engineering building through his window at the Health Sciences Centre.

He was a second-year undergraduate mechanical engineering student when a near-fatal accident left him paralyzed from the shoulders down.

“I woke up in the hospital, in a new body, and realized that a lot of things were going to change for me,” he said. “I remember one of the first things I worried about was that I had a test coming up the following week.”

Determined to find independence

Originally from Cape Broyle, N.L., Mr. Coombs pushed the thoughts of his program aside and focused on himself and his healing process.

The following spring, when Memorial University was operating in a primarily remote teaching and learning environment, Mr. Coombs seized the opportunity to get back to his studies.

“I took the plunge and accepted the risk of failure,” said Mr. Coombs, who will collect his bachelor of engineering degree (mechanical) during convocation ceremonies at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre on June 1. “It was very scary getting back into it, but I had so much encouragement and help from my friends and family and from one of my mentors from my first work term.”

Mr. Coombs was determined to be as independent as possible with his studies.

Four people show their iron rings
Mr. Coombs, third from left, with members of his lab group after receiving their iron rings. He and his group members grew close throughout their program.  The iron ring is worn by many engineers as a symbol and reminder of the obligations and ethics associated with their profession.
Photo: Submitted

Through trial and error, he found a way to write his tests and assignments with his mouth using a stylus and an iPad.

He says he “can’t overstate” how great it felt to get back to learning, have responsibilities and be challenged.

“I was missing that and I feel like that’s what a lot of people in my position really miss. I was grateful for the opportunity. With the pandemic, everyone was in the same position as me and had to complete tests at home. If it had been 15-20 years prior, I wouldn’t have been able to do that because of the online aspect of things, and how advanced assistive technology is now.”

Physically returning to campus in September 2021 after a life-altering experience was no easy feat, but Mr. Coombs says he received great support.

Many people gather together for a photo.
Mr. Coombs celebrates with his mechanical engineering class at Quidi Vidi Brewery after their iron ring ceremony.
Photo: Submitted

“I received everything I needed from my professors, the mechanical engineering department, the faculty as a whole and the Blundon Centre,” he said. “I just had to reach out and I had it.”

While many people asked Mr. Coombs if it was too soon to return to his studies, he says he felt it was important to do it as soon as possible.

“I had felt a lack of purpose, but I also felt I had an obligation to do it because I could. Shortly after my accident, the doctors thought I might have sustained a brain injury, but fortunately, that wasn’t the case. While I may not have function of my body, I do have function of my mind, so I had to do it for the people who couldn’t.”

The text "Spring convocation 2023" is over a claret background with a subtle damask pattern and a gold Memorial coat of arms in the lower right-hand corner.

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