The saga of Erik Fugunt and his amazing journey continues.
Last time Fugunt made news was in 2014 when Fugunt had helped save a man in a near-fatal car accident late one night in the Mebane countryside. Fugunt and Brandon Jeffries, the gentleman who survived the crash, had teamed together to help Fugunt try towin a new wheelchair-accessible van when his story made local news.
But now Fugunt is getting attention for another great accomplishment: his mother, Jacqueline Dunkle, has written two books about her son’s journey (with help from Fugunt and wife Jenny.) Gratitude & Grit: A Mother’s Healing Journey was published first and told the story of Fugunt’s own motorcycle accident in 2010 that nearly took his life and his transition back into the world. Her latest book, Paralyzed Without Fear: A Family of Their Own, which was a finalist in the categories of Memoirs – Overcoming Tragedy and Religious Non-Fiction in the Independent Book Publishing Professionals Group Awards, tells the story of what odds Fugunt has been able to overcome – including fathering children. According to the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, Fugunt is the first documented paralyzed man to conceive children through animal husbandry techniques at home without medical assistance.
“These crazy, wonderful outcomes just continue to happen. It’s crazy. It’s crazy being his mom,” Dunkle said. She later added, “I go back to a memory of seeing him laying in the hospital, waiting for him to take his last breath on the ventilator, and [his] little children jump into my arms, and I’m like, ‘It’s real! It’s real!’”
The hero story
A lot has transpired since that night in 2014 when Fugunt saved Jeffries’ life.
Fugunt and his wife and kids recently relocated from Mebane to Wilmington, where he lived and attended community college at the time of his accident. Right now, they’re in the midst of building their own home and Fugunt is acting as his own general contractor.
“They’re doing great. They’re living a life,” Dunkle said. “They keep moving onward. It’s great to see them living a regular life with all of the obstacles they have.”
In a recap, Fugunt, a mechanic, was working out in his garage while living in the Mebane countryside. At around 4:30 a.m., he heard a terrible crash peel through the night sky. He determined to check out what happened because he didn’t hear any rescue sirens and grew concerned. After finding a road sign knocked down, he and his wife called 911. An ambulance and fire trucks arrived at the scene, but the crew looked for about half an hour and couldn’t find any crash. Fugunt insisted on looking more, even after officers said there was nothing more to be done and the ambulance had been sent away. An officer went back into the woods with a flashlight and found the landing: the car had airborne and flew over the creek, hit the bank on the other side and then continued to roll until it landed against a tree, completely hidden from view.
Having experienced a crisis similar to what happened that night, Fugunt could simply not give up or back down.
Fugunt followed Brandon Jeffries, the driver, to the hospital and met Jeffries’ family there to explain his side of the story. His heroism truly impacted the family and forged a deep friendship. Jeffries, who had suffered traumatic braininjury and endured subsequent operations from the injuries he sustained that night, teamed with Fugunt to help film a video for a national contest to win a new van for Fugunt. Although he didn’t win it, Fugunt received another van through a generous donation and had given away his previous van to a man who had suffered a stroke and needed one badly.
Breaking barriers and defying the odds
Following the miraculous story of Fugunt’s survival in Gratitude and Grit, the book ended with his move to Mebane with no one knowing what would happen next. Dunkle began documenting everything that happened after and eventually put together what would be her next book, Paralyzed Without Fear. Dunkle recalls the accidents and begins this story discussing how Fugunt, even has a child, was never afraid to die.
“Even as a teenager, he had a very serious discussion with me at one point and said that he felt he was sent here for a purpose, that he was born to do something really important that could change the course of the world,” Dunkle said. “And then he continued and said, ‘It feels like it might be tragic.’”
After the accident that took his mobility, Fugunt suffered through depression because of the difficult adjustments: Dunkle said people exclusively think just the loss of leg functions when they encounter someone with paralysis, but some of the real issues come with adjusting to not being able to control bowel or sexual functions either.Wanting to avoid any embarrassment with bowel accidents prompted Fugunt to create a device that enables paralyzed people to use the bathroom over the toilet called Paraflush, which he has released to the open market.
The next big challenge was that Jenny had one stipulation for their relationship, even before the accident: she wanted to have children.
So they tried in vitro fertilization via testicular biopsy, which doctors in the area said was the only way possible. It cost them thousands of dollars and didn’t work.
“So that sent them a little bit further into depression until they got an unexpected call from the Miami Project [to Cure Paralysis] that experiments with paralyzed people and asked if he wanted to participate in their fertility program,” Dunkle said. “They had put an application in but never expected to hear anything. So he immediately drove down there.”
The Miami Project was experimenting with animal husbandry techniques to help men with spinal cord injuries, or SCI, conceive children with their partners. According to the Miami Project’s website, the male fertility program was developed in the 1990’s and has become a world leader in the study. Since the program’s inception, over 500 men have participated in the program and have fathered over 200 children.
The clinical study was completely free for Fugunt and his wife – the only expense was traveling to Miami.
They had developed a process by inserting an electric probe into the rectum which, when turned on, stimulates the muscle around the prostate and triggers ejaculation.
It worked for Fugunt, but unfortunately, Jenny still couldn’t get pregnant.
“Disappointed that she wasn’t pregnant, [Jenny] was like, ‘That’s it, we’re done. We can’t afford to fly or drive down there every month when I’m ovulating,’” Dunkle said. “So his wheels started turning and he said, ‘If they can do it, I can do it.’”
Being a mechanic and a do-it-yourself kind of guy, Fugunt rounded up an animal husbandry machine that was used for bulls and installed a goat probe on it for appropriate sizing. And after the first try, Jenny was pregnant the first time and gave birth to their daughter, Mila.
The Miami Project stated that this was the first documented case of a paralyzed man doing this at home.
Not long after, the couple welcomed their son, Wolfgang.
Though not medically advisable to do on one’s own, Fugunt had reasoned he had enough knowledge to safely do it himself.
“He was advised against it because when he was in Miami and they were doing it to him, of course he was asking questions –‘How many volts am I at? What’s the temperature gauge?’ He’s a mechanic so he understands. And they said, ‘We know what you’re up to, don’t do this at home. This is to be done by professionals, not by you at home.’ And he just kept watching and listening and asking questions,” Dunkle said. She also noted that her father had a farm and Fugunt was very familiar with the practice from there.
“I opened the book with this feeling he had of, ‘I think I was born to do something important and it feels like it might be tragic.’ And so I close it with that as well, and take the reader back to that time I was chatting with him and I think back to that and think how can he not know that he’s on his path and that his purpose is being fulfilled with everything that’s happened.
“And even on the same day that happened, we had a religious man just stop us on the street and chat with us for a long time and he gave us each a crucifix,” Dunkle said. “We’re not Catholic, but when I looked up the meaning of that crucifix, it was: to receive protection from evil, to be strengthened by God’s presence in the hour of your death, and to secure a timely and healthy birth of children. And that’s the last page. Maybe this book was written because of the blessing of that stranger.”
Fugunt is the full-time caregiver to his two children. He had managed to creatively overcome everyday obstacles, such as figuring out how to balance himself and change diapers.
Getting the word out
The afterword of Paralyzed expands upon the many facets of what this medical knowledge can do in society.
Fugunt wrote the ending and is quite candid with the hard topics, namely his accident and the electrostimulation method to conceiving children.
Dunkle said that it’s been a challenging getting Fugunt’s story out about how he was able to conceive children. When Mila was first born, according to the family, no one they told believed them about how she was conceived.
Still, the family wants to see this medical information reach mainstream news.
“We have to get word out there, period, that this works, this is available,” Dunkle said. “Not that we are promoting that people should do this at home, because you should completely not being doing it at home – but at least it can be done. You can go to Miami and they can do this and it’s free. It’s just your expense to get there. So I guess that’s the message that Erik is really adamant about, about getting the word out, because he felt doomed by the doctors and broke, and they were in debt, and there’s hope.”
Dunkle is fighting to see this method become more nationally recognized and utilized – if the family didn’t even know that this was an option, the vast majority of the population probably doesn’t either, they feel. If methods like this were practiced in a safe environment, there’s no reason a fertility specialist anywhere in the nation couldn’t advise men with SCI’s to try it.
“And Erik feels, for a lot of them, that’s it’s a monetary reason,” Dunkle said. “They make more money doing it their way instead of doing it an easy way. He speaks candidly in his afterward about that, and said he feels it’s financially motivated, but what other motivation do they have?” she added, comparing the prices of the in vitro fertilization that put the family into debt versus buying the farm equipment at a significantly lower cost.
And of course, getting Fugunt’s story out could mean even more research for organizations like the Miami Project or others who can make miracles happen.
“We’re fascinated and frustrated – frustrated that it’s a sensitive topic, that you don’t really know how to go about telling the story, so we just end up telling it,” Dunkle said. “We’re more grateful that we have two little grandchildren.”
Visit http://www.jacquelinedunkle.com/paralyzed-without-fear.html to learn more about the book, read an excerpt, or order a copy.