By Joan Tupons
An active athlete in middle and high school, Khalil Watson never imagined himself in a wheelchair. He never thought, at 18, that he would have to be fed through a tube or relearn how to breathe, talk and eat. Before May 26, 2016, his goal was the same as other high school seniors: to walk across the stage and receive his diploma from Highland Springs High School near Richmond.
But Watson’s world changed that day when, after getting a haircut at the barbershop, he was robbed and shot in the neck. He was transported to VCU Medical Center, where he remained until August 11. A spinal cord injury left Watson paralyzed, and instead of walking across the stage, he had to stream his graduation ceremony from his hospital bed.
From May to June of that year, Watson ended up in the intensive care unit, connected to feeding and breathing tubes. But through it all, he kept hope alive.
“I like to look at situations that seem negative in a positive way,” said Watson, now a junior at Virginia Commonwealth University pursuing a degree in the School of Social Work.
Watson began physical therapy at what is now the Sheltering Arms Institute, a collaboration with VCU Health, in 2016 and continues to benefit from its services.
“Every time I go to therapy, I see progression,” he said. “All the therapists I work with are good.”
Khalil Watson works with physical therapist Christina Smith at the Sheltering Arms Bon Air Physical Therapy Clinic and Rehabilitation Center. Smith has been working with Watson since 2016. Here they work on his mobility and his ability to get up and into his wheelchair. (VCU Enterprise Marketing and Communications)
In 2019, he felt strong enough to begin work on his Associate’s Degree in Pre-Social Work from Reynolds Community College. Without reliable transportation, there were days when Watson walked miles in her wheelchair to get to the center of the Reynolds campus.
“I used the GRTC bus to get to school but I had to push my wheelchair when I missed the bus,” he said. “I would drive on the side of the streets when there were no sidewalks.”
Watson became interested in social work after being shot, and during his time in the hospital and rehab, he decided to pursue it as a career.
“I’ve always been passionate about helping others,” he said. “While I was in recovery, I met a lot of social workers, and what made me want to be a social worker was seeing them in action.”
On May 15 this year, Watson walked across the stage to receive his diploma from Reynolds – with the help of a wearable robotic exoskeleton and two of his Sheltering Arms therapists. He starts training with the most advanced technology in 2021.
“It was definitely a challenge,” he said. “But I was able to walk for my degree.”
Walking again was “a great experience,” he added. “All the things I had to go through to get to this – the fact that I graduated felt like a dream come true.”
VCU was a natural choice when it came time to further his education.
“I was born in Richmond and it all fits,” Watson said. “Because of my circumstances, I knew I wouldn’t be able to go to school out of state.”
In light of the transportation issues, Watson is taking classes online and is on track to complete her bachelor’s degree in 2025. After that, she hopes to begin a master’s degree in social work.
Khalil Watson decided to pursue social work as a career during his hospital stay and rehabilitation process. (VCU Enterprise Marketing and Communications)
He said his ongoing recovery has been a team effort. “I had support from my family and friends, as well as from all my therapists. They all played a role in my success,” he said.
Watson’s positive attitude, an attribute from his youth, is also a factor. “One thing I’ve learned is that I can persevere, carry on through my life no matter what the circumstances are,” he said.
For now, Watson’s goal is to walk again — and enjoy her time in college.
“I definitely support the basketball team. I like to talk about sports. I hope to make it to a few basketball events and join certain clubs,” he said. “I plan to take advantage of everything I can while at VCU.”