USSYP alumni have contributed to society in a wide variety of ways, at a wide variety of ages. Today, we share the remarkable story of USSYP 2018 alumnus Andrew Mangan, who suffered a life-changing accident just over a year prior to attending Washington Week. Andrew turned his unforeseen challenge into opportunity through extreme physical and emotional resilience and intellectual curiosity. His research project on the future of spinal cord injury (SCI) survival led to a book Plugged In: How Mind-Machine Interfaces Will Transform The World, which was published in September 2018 and is available as an audiobook as well.
USSYP: Can you share the motivation for writing your book?
Andrew: In December of 2016, I belly flopped into a snow bank of what I thought was freshly fallen snow. Unfortunately, it turned out to be freshly shoveled, hard snow that forced my head back shattering my fifth vertebrae into three pieces. One of those pieces was pushed towards my spinal cord and the resulting bruising caused instant paralysis from my neck down.
Every day since then I have spent recovering. I have been extraordinarily lucky and through hard work, faith and a super family around me, I have been able to recover a majority of my movement. I now am able to walk without a cane and continue to recover. This is thanks to the efforts of my mom, my dad and my siblings, all of whom spent hours researching and finding out all there was to know about spinal cord injury recoveries. Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that there is still so much unknown about these injuries.
One crucial way in which I was able to gather information, ask questions, and simply learn how my body functioned, was through connecting with other SCI survivors. One of my mentors and now good friend, is Mike Shaw, who suffered a very similar injury to me three years before my injury. He was so crucial to my recovery because when the doctors would say, “We don’t know if you’ll be able to do that…” Mike would say, “I did it at that point, so you can too!” Mike continues to inspire and mentor SCI patients as well as giving talks about the power of attitude and gratitude.
A couple months after my injury, when I was back home from the hospital and finishing up my junior year, I decided to try to emulate the effect Mike had on me on a larger platform. What I came up with was Connecting the Resilient. Initially I aggregated stories from the many people I had met and put them up on the website, but then I decided podcast interviews were a far better medium to share these stories. I thankfully have been able to interview almost two dozen SCI patients, researchers, therapists and doctors. My goal is to create something that I wanted when I was newly injured: stories about how people work through this injury and get back to their lives.
However, this wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to try to understand some of the scientific ways that researchers are hoping to cure SCIs. I thought of looking into a lot of different topics, but ultimately settled on brain-computer interfaces because I didn’t know anything about it. It is becoming more and more relevant in a wide range of applications, and, lastly, it is a promising area of SCI prostheses.
USSYP: What were the key turning points in moving the project from idea to execution?
Andrew: Shortly after I broke my neck and became a quadriplegic, my older brother, Peter, introduced me to a professor of his at Georgetown University, whose goal was to help students create their own credibility. The professor, Eric Koester, along with my brother Peter, thought that I should write a book about my recovery journey and my desire to delve into the subject of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), which might one day help other SCI patients recover.
For the first two months of my book-writing project I reached out to everybody I could in the field of brain-computer interfaces. Through email, LinkedIn, and Facebook, I cold-emailed and called probably 50 people who are experts in this field. Of these people, many returned my call and we would talk about the technology and their research. Initially these conversations would be mostly the experts talking about their career or projects and me listening, but as time went on, I began to grasp the different aspects of BCIs and started asking more pointed questions, seeing their stance on certain controversial ideas, different approaches, etc.
This part of the process was informative and later very helpful, as it allowed me to build many “stories” about different research topics, which would ultimately come together and form the book. This idea of finding “stories,” was extremely important because it made the whole process very manageable. I wouldn’t think about reaching a word count of 35,000. I would just focus on one story, three to five pages long, then another and another, until I realized I had more than enough content for an entire book.
It wasn’t until this point, about five months after starting the project, that I really sat down and decided on the structure and chapter layout. This took much less time than I feared, and I was able to put the manuscript together in a number of weeks.
USSYP: Given your other obligations and focus on recovery, how did you make time to write the book?
Andrew: It was definitely a lot of work to balance the second half of my senior year in high school with rehab, a summer job, and the book, but I would try to set small deadlines for myself to make sure I kept chipping away at the work.
The interview process was probably the hardest part because I had to work around the schedules of the people I was interviewing. Due to my being at school for most of the day, the interviews largely took place early in the morning, late at night, or sometimes during free periods at school. Overall, however, I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that as I added this project to my schedule I simply began to work more efficiently and would go from one task to the other. This is not to say I completely cured my tendency towards procrastination, but it definitely improved!
USSYP: Have you partaken in promotional activities or a book tour?
Andrew: Last year, I was lucky enough to receive an acceptance to the US State Department’s Congress Bundestag Youth exchange program. Under the auspices of this program, I spent the past year in Germany, so didn’t have the chance to partake in formal book launch events. However, I promoted my book during the first 3 months by writing weekly articles posted on the Medium.com.
USSYP: What has been the response to your book? What has surprised you?
Andrew: I never meant for my book to be a best seller or gain a huge following, rather as an introduction to a very scientific topic. However, despite this intent, I have been amazed by the effect my book has had and the connections I have made as a result of publishing it. While spending my gap year studying in Germany, the first month of my program was spent with 50 of the other scholarship recipients in Hamburg, Germany, attending intensive German courses. One of the afternoons, we were lucky enough to visit the US Consulate in Hamburg (nicknamed the “little white house”) to speak with the consulate general and staff about our program. While there, I was talking with a German student who lived in Hamburg and had been one of the Germans who was sent to America with the other half of our program. Halfway through our conversation, she asked me if I was the same Andrew Mangan that wrote Plugged In. I was quite surprised, and she explained to me that her grandpa had an illness that had a potential cure in brain-computer interfaces and, therefore, she tried to stay abreast of new books and research.
USSYP: What advice would you give USSYP alums who are interested in writing books or pursuing literary endeavors?
Andrew: My advice would be to just jump in. It is a seemingly insurmountable task when you look at it from the outside (or at least it seemed that way to me) but like many things in life, if you just approach it one step at a time it soon breaks down into very achievable goals. This is advice that I try to apply to my own life and rehabilitation as well.
Since the USSYP Washington Week, I know that at least one of the other delegates, Noah Harris (MS-2018), has also written a book of his own to inspire children to achieve their dreams, Successville.
USSYP: How has this experience and contribution to society honed your commitment to leadership, service and education (the tenets of USSYP)?
Andrew: After my injury, I became keenly aware, in a very sudden manner, how fragile the human body is. Since then I have tried to find ways to understand my body and how I can improve rehabilitation in people with similar and differing injuries. One way I have done this is with my Connecting the Resilient outreach, another with the book, and a third effort is to educate young students about the power of attitude, resilience, and positivity in the light of challenging circumstances.
I have tried to practice this myself and attribute a great deal of my own recovery to the power of these less often prescribed remedies. In the past years I have tried to share my viewpoint with others. I have spoken at a number of high schools in my city about the power of attitude. For me, this is not simply something to be applied when you go through an extremely traumatic event, but can be applied by everybody to everyday problems as well.
Another opportunity that became available to me due to my outreach and book, was the invitation I received to speak at D’Youville College’s School of Physical Therapy’s White Coat Ceremony. This was truly an honor, as I hoped to help influence the next generation of therapists in encouraging their patients to persevere with a positive attitude through even the most difficult challenges.
I see all of these opportunities to speak and share my story and outlook as a small way of giving back to those around me, as well as offering others a guiding mindset. For example, I am regularly contacted by parents and family members of people who have recently suffered SCIs and I am pleased to say that I have been able to provide some mentorship and guidance to these survivors.
I was profoundly affected by my week in Washington D.C. with 103 other driven and engaged delegates. Throughout my week in D.C., I saw the qualities of leadership, service, and education demonstrated in the speeches by leaders and the discussions of my fellow delegates. This inspired me to return home and apply and share what I learned in D.C. in my own community. In the presence of other USSYP delegates, it truly felt that anything was possible if we set our minds to it: from helping to find a solution to mass poverty to finding a cure for spinal cord injuries. I am very grateful for being a part of the USSYP community and would like to once more extend my most sincere thank you to the Hearst Foundations, the military mentors, and everyone else who made Washington Week 2018 possible.
Photos provided by Andrew Mangan