When Determination Meets Science
In the video, a man labors up a snowy trail, methodically planting forearm crutches on the ground ahead of him and swinging his legs forward. He repeats the move, pausing for breath. Suddenly, he topples into a full-body fall, like a tree hitting the ground. A team of people rush to his side, pulling and pushing him upright, and he returns to his climb. “I’ve seen him fall a thousand times,” says one man on camera. “And he always rises again and again.”
What’s unusual is not that Michael Haddad rises again, but that he is upright and able to move at all. He is in the 7 percent of paraplegics with spinal cord injuries who have walked and the only one named a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Regional Goodwill Ambassador for Climate Action. He has hiked the Arctic Circle carrying International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) seeds and willingly lends his body to science for researchers to study what could be possible for other paraplegics. With a team of professionals, Haddad has repeatedly accomplished the impossible in terms of independent motion. He wants others with spinal cord injuries to believe that they too can get out of a wheelchair, walk upstairs, climb mountains, and defy expectations.
Haddad lost feeling and control of his body from the chest down in a childhood Jet Ski accident. Decades of determination led him to technologists at the Lebanese American University, who engineered an exoskeleton that encases and supports his movements, allowing him to stay upright, balanced on crutches, with his shoulders and hands carrying his weight. Physical trainers and nutritionists at AUB joined the team, helping him develop his own “swing-through gait” and better understand how he burns energy and how to regulate his body heat. He has pushed himself to such extraordinary accomplishments that people forget he climbs mountains using only 25 percent of his body. His support team calls him an endurance athlete.
AUB’s Dr. Omar Obeid, chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Science at FAFS, explains that since only 25 percent of Haddad’s body can produce the energy for him to move, he heats up quickly and can easily experience hyperthermia, even in cold weather. “He’s dependent on glycogen storage to avoid heat stroke and needs extra water. We don’t want him to burn carbohydrates abundantly at first and then go into burning proteins. The puzzle for us has been how to have his body preserve the needed protein and not overheat.” Dr. Obeid walked alongside Haddad in 2020, trying to keep him cool during a fundraising challenge in downtown Beirut.
Others from FAFS joined Team Haddad as he walked on special skis from the mountain village of Faraya in March 2022. “For three hours, he was constantly cramping in his shoulders,” Obeid remembers. “We learned how best to use body sensors to warn him to slow down so as not to risk internal damage from hyperthermia.” All this led to a walk in Norway in June 2022, under the umbrella of the UNDP, including the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in which Haddad carried seeds from twelve countries in the MENA region to the famed global seed vault in Svalbard. The AUB team synchronized his food and liquid regimens that would help put as much as three liters of fluid in his gut to keep him cool while providing needed energy. During the 5 km walk, the AUB team gathered physiological and performance data using core body temperature monitors. Over twenty support people accompanied Haddad, who walked six hours without cramping. His mission was to bring awareness of climate change and to prove nothing is impossible if you are determined.
In that vein, Haddad has completed a 100-meter dash and is using the experience to advocate for a new category in the Paralympic Games. “Imagine that we who have spinal cord injuries could compete standing up! That is what the scientists at AUB are helping us achieve.” The scientific study of energy expenditure and nutrition at AUB recently led conservation architect and mountaineer Joyce Azzam to contact the department. Azzam has climbed the world’s seven summits and plans to reach both the North and South Poles for the Explorer’s Grand Slam. The South Pole walk of 1,140 km in frigid temperatures, pulling 100 kg of supplies, will take close to two months. The team from FAFS is looking at the predicted ratio of hemoglobin to oxygen needed at 2,100 m above sea level, as well as at her expected energy expenditure and ways she can gain weight in advance of the trip to provide the energy required over the two months.
“We are proud of the work done in our department,” Obeid says. “And what it can lead to in the future. Michael’s determination has opened up several potential lines of study that can give hope to people with spinal cord injuries.” Exactly the kind of words that inspire Haddad to get back up and keep going.