By Sherry DiBari

Davis Takhvar, a Navy veteran and mechanical engineering technology major, didn’t let a life-altering accident get in the way of finishing his education at Old Dominion University.

Takhvar, who is graduating this month, took a year and a half off from college after a motocross accident left him paralyzed from the waist down.

Growing up in San Luis Obispo, California, Takhvar was always an adrenaline junkie. He rode motocross from a very young age and played football in high school.  

After high school, he wanted to attend college but didn’t want to take out student loans. “It's just not something I wanted to be indebted with for life,” he said.

For Takhvar, the military seemed like the best alternative. His uncles and grandfather had all been in the Navy, so he chose that path.

He enlisted at 18 and spent his Navy career working as an avionics technician on F-18 aircraft. Takhvar was stationed in Virginia when he transitioned to civilian life in 2018.

He chose ODU because of its reputation for taking care of veterans and the engineering program. “It’s been seamless,” he said.

Takhvar intended to major in electrical engineering. However, a bio-inspired robotics workshop for military veterans led him to mechanical engineering technology. “I kind of fell in love with robotics through that seminar,” he said.

He had just started the fall semester of his junior year when the accident happened.

On Sept. 6, 2020, Takhvar was practicing at the Elizabeth City Motocross Club – something he did nearly every weekend – when he ended up overjumping a step-down, a type of downhill jump, and landing flat.

He remembers looking down at his boots and noticing they were kind of twisted. Takhvar asked his friend to straighten out his legs. “He picked up my leg, and in that moment, I thought, ‘That's not my leg.’ I can see that he's holding my leg, but I felt like ‘That's somebody else's leg.’ And I went into full panic shock mode. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is what it feels like.’ Because you don't know what it's like to be paralyzed until you are.

“It was the worst, worst day of my life.”

"I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is what it feels like.’ Because you don't know what it's like to be paralyzed until you are." - Davis Takhvar

Takhvar was airlifted to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital and treated for a broken back, collapsed lung and broken ribs in addition to the spinal cord injury.

“It was traumatic,” he said. “I remember telling them, ‘I don't want to die.’”

He spent two weeks in the ICU, then was transported to the Richmond Veteran Affairs (VA) Medical Center. It houses one of the largest spinal cord injury centers in the VA system. “They were very kind of pivotal in me regaining my feet, so to speak, and getting a more positive attitude.”

It was another patient at the facility, however, who changed Takhvar’s perspective on the accident.

There was a man in his early twenties at the facility who had suffered a neck-down injury and used a breath-controlled wheelchair. He had been hit by a drunk driver. “It was like a worst-case scenario, not even a cool story – like life just comes at you,” Takhvar said.

“This dude had the most positive attitude, and it kind of wore off on me,” he said. “It molded me into who I am today. And I don't even know the guy's name.

“Since that day, I've committed myself to being that person to as many people as I can be. It sounds corny, but it's true.”

After rehab, he went back to work at Cycle World, where he had been working full-time before the accident. He returned to ODU a year and a half later.

Takhvar didn’t just ease back into his studies – he’s made the dean’s list each year since the accident and will graduate cum laude.

“Davis was a driven student when he came to us that first year,” said Tony Dean, assistant dean of maritime and defense initiatives and a professor in the Department of Engineering Technology. “I’m extremely proud of the way he has handled the challenges since the accident, continuing on as one of the more excellent students in the program.”

“He started out strong, and he’s finishing even stronger,” he added.

Takhvar has adapted to life in a wheelchair. He doesn’t use automatic doors, though. “I open a door like normal,” he said. “That's what people don't know about being in a wheelchair. Everyone has different abilities.”

Another stereotype, he notes, is the type of car wheelchair-bound people drive. “People would assume, ‘Oh, he's paralyzed, he probably drives a van.’ But you don't have to be in a van,” he said. “I drive a 5.0, which is like a really high-powered version of the Mustang.”

And Takhvar is still an adrenaline junkie. Not long after rehab, he tried downhill ice skiing in an adaptive bucket seat. “I fell down like three times,” he said. “But it was a great experience.” Just three months ago, Takhvar celebrated his 30th birthday by going skydiving.

As the fall semester came to an end, Takhvar wrapped up his final classes and his group’s senior design project – a rainwater collection and harvesting system.

After graduation, he’s headed back to California to be closer to family.

He has already begun applying for engineering jobs and is thinking about graduate school. He hopes to find a life partner and start a family. “I definitely want to have kids at some point,” he said.

In the long run, Takhvar sees promise in spinal cord injury research, particularly in the field of stem cell research. However, right now the United States has federal restrictions and limitations on funding and use of stem cells.

He reflected on the worst day of his life.

“Yeah, it was a bad day, definitely,” he said. “But, when you get through it and you look back on it, it's one of those things where you're like, life just keeps throwing all this stuff at me and one by one, I'm knocking down all the barriers.”