Four years later: Auburn grad reflects on hunting accident

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Cameron Stovall grew up like most boys in Gadsden, Alabama—hunting, fishing and enjoying the outdoors whenever he could. He graduated from high school in 2006 and briefly played baseball for a junior college before transferring to Auburn University. After a stint as an accounting major, Stovall realized he could study what he loved most: the forest. He became a student in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences with a concentration in procurement.

Upon graduating in 2012, Stovall immediately landed a job with a six-figure salary working in the woods every day. An avid hunter, Stovall's life was truly working out the way he hoped it would. He had just made an offer on a house and bought his dream truck when the unthinkable happened.

“I can't imagine anything that stops you in your tracks like losing your vision,” Stovall said.

It was April 22, 2014. Stovall's friends and family all gathered at the hospital and prayed. The shotgun pellets had planted in his chest, shoulders and most detrimentally, his eyes. Stovall had been turkey hunting with a close friend and two cousins on a friend's farm on a rainy, foggy morning.

“My friend and I went to one side of the farm and my cousins went to the other side,” Stovall said. “I needed to go to work so I went to the truck, but ended up passing the truck and ending up on the other side of the farm, about 400 yards from my cousins. I had communicated with them and knew exactly where they were, but they had moved to get in front of a turkey they had spotted. The turkey left, and suddenly I became the turkey.”

More than 150 shotgun pellets hit Stovall's body, only 15 yards away from the 1,350-feet-per-second blast. He was 26 years old.

An ambulance took Stovall from Gadsden to UAB Hospital due to the severity of his injuries. His mother and father were informed that Cameron was not expected to have any vision in his right eye and it would likely need to be removed, and that the prognosis was not positive for his left eye. He would likely be blind for the rest of his life.

“We wondered how Cam would live in this world as a blind man,” Mary Stovall, Cameron's mother, said. “He loved the outdoors. He loved to hunt. He loved life. He was so athletic, and only 26 years old. He had his whole life ahead of him.”

For a young, active man like Stovall, losing vision was terrifying.

“I woke up in the ICU with a tube down my throat, a tube out of my side, absolutely no vision and entirely alone,” Stovall said. “I was seen by multiple physicians who gave me very little hope that any of my vision would ever be restored, but Dr. Robert Morris took my case on a whim. To date, he has performed 19 surgeries on me. I have recovered 10 percent vision in my left eye, which may not sound like a lot but is a tremendous amount for someone who spent almost seven weeks completely blind.”

Stovall has a prosthetic right eye and has had a corneal transplant and laser surgeries to remove scar tissue.

“It's hard to describe what 10 percent vision looks like,” Stovall said. “I don't have a lens in my left eye so everything is out of focus. It's like if you wake up in the morning and close your right eye completely, then rub your left eye as hard as you can and kind of squint. That's how I see.”

Stovall went from living a full life as an independent adult to relying on others for everything.

“I like my independence and having to depend on people was pretty hard for me,” Stovall said. “I've figured out how to do most things on my own aside from driving. I've figured out how to gain some independence back with the Lord's grace and with help from my family and friends.”

For Stovall and his family, vision is something that is not taken for granted.

“Cameron could do nothing for himself for six weeks after the accident when he was completely blind,” said Mary, Stovall's mom. “I did everything for him.”

But now, his vision is back and he's settling into a new normal after the accident.

“For Cam to have vision is life changing,” his mom said. “He regained most of his independence and does most things he did before the accident. He hunts, drives his boat, plays golf, bowls and fishes, shoots basketball and more. It's indescribable for Cam to have vision!”

Stovall lives primarily independently now, is in the process of building a house and enjoys motivational speaking, particularly to college students.

“I'm open to whatever the Lord has for my life in the next month, year or 15 years,” Stovall said. “I have a heart for college-aged kids and for people who are going through stuff. You can either lie down and let it defeat you or you can move on. I love encouraging people.”

Though most people would view Stovall's circumstances as the worst thing that could happen to a 26-year-old man, Stovall has a positive outlook that he attributes to the support in his life and the good he has seen come from his story.

“A lot of people know my story and just seeing me walk around with a smile on my face makes a difference to them,” Stovall said. “If you had told me that I would lose my eyesight at age 26, I would've told you that I would rather die. I couldn't have imagined living my life without vision. I realize now that we take so much for granted. We complain about dumb stuff and don't realize what a blessing it is to be able to do simple things. It was hard to get past those two-and-a-half years of surgeries but now I look back and think, 'Man, what a blessing.' I get to tell people that I understand where they are and that I've experienced the same things: anxiety, depression, hard stuff. I can encourage them. I would sign up for the accident every day if it meant changing lives like that.”

Stovall's support system stretches far beyond his immediate family. He credits his teachers and friends at Auburn for helping him in many ways since his accident. He was asked to come teach a procurement practicum at Auburn for procurement students. He has maintained his relationships with many faculty members at Auburn. In addition, Stovall is grateful to his doctor, Robert Morris, for his continued support in his life.

“I had seven or eight doctors tell me that they couldn't do anything for my eyes,” Stovall said. “Dr. Morris took my case and didn't give up on me. Without him, I wouldn't have my vision back. He calls me every week to check on me and he takes me on a quail hunt every year. Without him, I wouldn't be able to hunt. He keeps me going.”

Morris started the Hellen Keller Foundation, which Stovall advocates for anytime he has an opportunity to do so.

“Hellen Keller was an amazing woman,” Stovall said. “She was the first blind and deaf woman to ever graduate college. With all of her accomplishments, I think one woman gets lost in the story and that's Anne Sullivan. She dedicated her whole life to develop a way to communicate with Keller. My family, my friends, Dr. Morris, the Auburn Family—this is my Anne Sullivan. These people created a way for me to communicate with the world. Aside from my faith, this is what has helped me survive and thrive.”

His Auburn Family even ensured Stovall had some once-in-a-lifetime experiences along the way. In the weeks following his accident, Stovall vocalized one goal he had to his family and friends: He wanted to see Auburn's pregame eagle flight again.

Through some connections in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, Lisa Paustian, a student services coordinator and close friend of Stovall's, was able to make that goal a reality. But more than that, Stovall was able to see the flight from where he was standing on Pat Dye Field.

After the eagle's flight, Paustian asked Stovall if he was able to get a good view of the eagle as it circled Jordan-Hare Stadium.

“Ms. Lisa,” Stovall responded. “The bird flew right over my head. I could feel the air from its wings. Even a blind man could see that.”

With the help of the Auburn Family, Paustian helped put together a day that would give Stovall memories to last a lifetime.

Stovall's story is not over. He is in the process of receiving some equipment that will enable him to do paperwork and other tasks required for most jobs. He continues to impact people with his story and gain more independence every day.

“Don't get me wrong, I would love to have my eyesight back, but I wouldn't change this accident happening because I am able to encourage so many people on a daily basis than I could before,” Stovall said. “I can tell people who are struggling, 'Look at me. I'm not very strong, I'm just a normal person and this bad thing happened to me, but I am able to wake up every day with a smile on my face.' I think that's cool, how the Lord can use something like this to change so many lives.”

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