How 1 Latter-day Saint has found joy as a missionary 4 years after paralyzing accident

PROVO, Utah — Elder Josh Hinton was "that guy" you knew in high school who seemed to balance the world on a string while everyone else was just trying to make it through seventh period.

Josh was a Big Man on campus at Utah’s Stansbury Park High School — though it’s doubtful he ever thought of himself that way.

Even while serving as the school’s 2015 student body president, the lifelong Latter-day Saint found time to earn good grades and compete on the Stallions’ track and cross-country teams.

And Josh could dance — any style of dance: ballroom, jazz, hip-hop.

“I started dancing my freshman year of high school, and by my junior year I was pretty serious about it,” he said.

Ballet was his favorite. After graduating from high school, he spent the summer studying with California’s Anaheim Ballet.

Dance, he decided, would always be a part of his life, either as a performer or an instructor.

But he planned to first attend Brigham Young University and eventually serve a full-time mission.

Four years have passed since he initially enrolled at the Church-owned school. And Elder Hinton, who is several months into his service mission at the Church’s motion picture studio in Provo, knows that even the most well-planned life rarely follows a steady, unobstructed path.

He’s only 22, an age when most Latter-day Saints are just dipping their toes into adulthood. But this elder with the broad smile and wise eyes is well-seasoned at weathering storms of change and disappointment.

Unimaginable tragedy

Aug. 29 marked the Saturday before the beginning of BYU’s 2015 fall semester, and 18-year-old Josh Hinton was enjoying his Freshman Orientation outdoor party.

On Aug. 29, 2015, Josh Hinton broke his neck while attending BYU freshman orientation. While in ICU, his mother, Jen Hinton, put his iPhone next to his ear and played music from Alex Boye. She said she could see her son calm down and breath easier.
On Aug. 29, 2015, Josh Hinton broke his neck while attending BYU freshman orientation. While in ICU, his mother, Jen Hinton, put his iPhone next to his ear and played music from Alex Boye. She said she could see her son calm down and breath easier. Credit: Family photo, Family photo

Always a competitor, he decided to race another student through an inflatable obstacle course. As he entered an obstacle-course tunnel, “I hit my head on something … and it broke three vertebrae.”

His spinal cord was also severely injured. He felt no pain as he lay on the ground. He felt nothing at all.

“I wasn’t super scared — but I remember calling out for help. It was hard to breathe, so I just focused on my breath. Words were hard to get out.”

An ambulance transported him to a Provo hospital, commencing what became more than a year of intensive medical care and therapy at facilities in Utah and Colorado. The promising young ballet dancer and anticipated future missionary had lost the use of his legs and much of the function in his arms, hands and fingers.

Denial was Josh’s initial defense against the outcomes of the accident. “I’m a procrastinator at heart,” he said, laughing.

But with each stage of his treatment — entering and leaving the intensive care unit, beginning and ending in-house rehabilitation, and returning home in a wheelchair — he had to accept that his daily routine had forever changed.

It was hard. His mortal life would never be as it once was.

He remembers commemorating the two-year anniversary of the accident with justified discouragement. “I was still here in this situation,” he said. “It was a sad moment when I realized that this situation may go on longer than I had thought.”

On Aug. 29, 2016, Josh Hinton was attending BYU freshman orientation. He ran through a bounce house obstacle course and hit his head in an inflatable post. He had broken his neck.
On Aug. 29, 2016, Josh Hinton was attending BYU freshman orientation. He ran through a bounce house obstacle course and hit his head in an inflatable post. He had broken his neck. Credit: John Wilson, Deseret News, Deseret News

But there were also victories.

During his stay in the ICU, doctors were uncertain if he would regain any use of his arms. But he worked fiercely with his rehab specialists during his lengthy stay at a facility in Colorado. Working to recover strength in his arms became a full-time “job.”

“Three months after my injury, I had improved dramatically.”

Much of his therapy focused on recovering daily life skills such as moving in and out of his wheelchair, brushing his teeth, tying his shoes and getting dressed.

Meanwhile, technology specialists helped him relearn to manipulate a keyboard, a smart phone and other devices.

Starting again

After more than a year of rehab in both Colorado and Utah, Josh was ready to get back to school. He studied at the BYU Salt Lake Center for a year before moving in with his sister in Utah County to attend the Provo campus.

Transitioning into the life of a full-time student evoked unexpected emotions.

“I was scared and nervous about everything,” he said. “I would go to class and then get home as quickly as possible where I knew that it was safe.”

But even during the most difficult and stressful moments of his recovery, Josh’s lifelong desire to wear the missionary’s name tag never wavered.

His mother, Jen, had served a mission to Brazil. His father, Todd, labored in Japan. And he came to love the Golden State during his ballet studies after high school. “So whenever I pictured where I would serve my mission, it was always Brazil, Japan or California.”

Missionary service in a foreign land or even a nearby state was no longer an option — but his talents were still needed, said Josh’s bishop, John Russell.

“When I asked Josh if he would be interested in serving a service mission, he lit up like a Christmas tree,” said Bishop Russell, who presides over the Provo 215th YSA Ward.

Josh accepted a two-year call to serve five days a week at the motion picture studio where many of the Church-sponsored films and videos are produced. Like missionaries anywhere in the world, Elder Hinton has learned the value of flexibility. Sometimes he’s assigned to perform historical research for upcoming film projects. Other days are spent editing raw video footage or transcribing dialogue to be used for translation services.

Elder Joshua Hinton, center, speaks with Elder Jacob Mower, left, and Elder Saxon Tornow prior to a leadership council meeting at the LDS Motion Picture Studio in Provo on Wednesday, April 10, 2019.
Elder Joshua Hinton, center, speaks with Elder Jacob Mower, left, and Elder Saxon Tornow prior to a leadership council meeting at the LDS Motion Picture Studio in Provo on Wednesday, April 10, 2019. Credit: Laura Seitz, Deseret News, Deseret News

He’s also a mission leader — overseeing and mentoring fellow service missionaries. He meets often with the elders and sisters to boost their spirits, extend assignments and help them succeed in their callings.

Ryan Johnson, the operations manager of the Church service missionaries at the studio, calls Elder Hinton a “rock star” and a “natural born leader.”

“He is so charismatic and friendly, I’ve never seen him not be positive and upbeat about any assignment,” said Johnson. “Other missionaries look to him for leadership.”

Both Johnson and Bishop Russell note that Elder Hinton won’t tolerate being defined by his physical challenges. He has good days and, well, not so good days. But he focuses on service and ability.

“I can ask him to do anything, and he will say, ‘OK, I’ll try.’ And then he goes and figures it out,” said Johnson.

Bishop Russell said several people in his ward (including himself) are inspired by Elder Hinton’s “can-do” ways. When the young missionary isn’t serving at the studio he is likely focusing on his YSA ward assignment as the family home evening chairman. He plans and coordinates the weekly ward family home events, making sure each activity promotes inclusivity and gospel learning.

Elder Joshua Hinton and Sister Kirsten Widmer choose a hymn during a leadership council meeting at the LDS Motion Picture Studio in Provo on Wednesday, April 10, 2019.
Elder Joshua Hinton and Sister Kirsten Widmer choose a hymn during a leadership council meeting at the LDS Motion Picture Studio in Provo on Wednesday, April 10, 2019. Credit: Laura Seitz, Deseret News, Deseret News

“Elder Hinton is so grateful for the gospel in his life,” said the bishop. “He knows with certainty that he will one day be made whole.”

As he looks back over the past several months of missionary service, Elder Hinton traces personal growth and development. He says he's being blessed for his efforts.

“I am definitely a lot more confident in myself,” he said. “I’ve also grown to know my Savior better, and I know the joy that comes from serving my Savior.”

Elder Hinton plans to serve until May of 2020. Then he will return to BYU and resume his business and finance studies. And he hopes to one day marry “the girl of my dreams.”

Meanwhile, he owns and operates his own car that uses a gas-and-brake joystick that he manipulates with one hand while steering with the other. “I drive to St. George or to Logan or wherever I need to go,” he said.

Difficult days are ahead. But he says he has proven tools he can draw upon such as prayer and scripture study.

“Serving also helps a ton, along with spending time with my family. … I know they are always there for me.”