My plan was to run him until he dropped. No breaks. Just gradually increase his pace until his tank ran out. I wanted to see how much endurance strength he had. Unfortunately for me, I never discovered it. There was one slight glitch in my plan that I hadn’t foreseen…the kid just kept on running.
* * *
I often thought that Lee Bryant’s energy should’ve been harnessed as an alternative fuel source. He simply had no stop button. Rest was a four-letter word he preferred not to hear.
We would meet two to three times a week at a college intramural field. There, beneath the lights on warm Texas summer nights, Lee let loose, clipping along at speeds that didn’t slow down. He was 15 years old, and my job was to prepare him for his upcoming high school basketball season. To build up his aerobic conditioning required on the court.
For two years I ran Lee.
Until I couldn’t.
* * *
September 18, 2010.
The light pole stood tall and solid in the Target parking lot. Its sole purpose was to illuminate. Beyond that, it was completely unforgiving.
Lee was 19 years old. He had just exited the store with a couple of items, and was getting into his car, preparing to drive away. Fifteen minutes was all it would take for him to walk through the front door, before going directly into the kitchen to raid the fridge for a quick snack. In seventeen minutes he’d be chilling in his room, watching ESPN. In twenty minutes, he’d be back at the fridge, rummaging for anything to appease his high metabolic rate.
Unfortunately, not only did his car not travel more than thirty seconds from the moment he left the parking space, but he also never made it home that night. And one light pole had changed everything.
While one hand was trying to call his mother with a cell phone, the other was attempting to secure his seatbelt. His eyes were anywhere except paying attention to where the car was going, which was being steered with his knee. Inadvertently, Lee had put himself in a very vulnerable and precarious situation.
At 15 mph, his car aimlessly ran nose-first into the concrete base of the light pole. At the moment of impact, Lee’s head was turned to the right as he dealt with the seatbelt. This would be the last time in the foreseeable future—and possibly his life—that he would ever be able to grab something, and one airbag had made certain of that.
He was completely caught off-guard when the airbag deployed, forcing his neck to bend at a bad angle. Less than a second later, much of his body was paralyzed. It comes with the territory when the sixth cervical vertebrae shatters into small fragments, resulting in a damaged spinal cord.
But there was a moment after the impact when Lee had no idea that paralysis had even occurred. For all he knew, this was nothing more than a little one-vehicle accident, and he might as well get out of the car to assess the damage. He shifted his torso to the left and tried to unlock his door.
Tried. It’s fair to say he didn’t even make that much progress. It was bad enough that he couldn’t move his arms, but the real horror was the fact that neither could he move his fingers, legs, and feet. They were completely limp.
He had felt nothing as C6 shattered. No pain of any kind, just an unwelcome numbness. There would be no unlocking the door at the request of the person outside his car—the same person who was calling 9-1-1. As Lee sat there, waiting for the paramedics and police to arrive, he had but one thought: “Shit! Shit! Shit! This can’t be good…this can’t be good.”
Soon he would hear the sirens of the emergency vehicles. And soon a police officer would be telling Lee to remain calm—they would be getting him out. That’s when he heard the sound of breaking glass as his rear windshield was being smashed open.
* * *
A few hours later, in the ER at Brackenridge Hospital in Austin, Lee was wearing a cervical neck brace as he laid prone on a gurney. He was waiting for a doctor to give him the results from his MRI. “Basically, your sixth vertebrae is missing. It’s shattered, and highly unlikely that you’ll ever walk again.”
In Lee’s words: ”That’s when the waterworks hit.”
At this point, authorities were attempting to contact Lee’s parents and sister. He was alone, and some of the worst news possible had just been delivered to him. It’s a tough situation when you’re a teenager and you learn that three-quarters of your body has basically been permanently anesthetized. Your entire life has evolved around sports. There’s no telling how many tens of thousands of miles your legs have run. And you always hated the word “rest” because it meant being idle, and idle just sucks. Long before your youth Little League Baseball days, you thrived on high-energy movement. And now…
An airbag knocked C6 clear out of the line-up.
“We’re prepping for surgery,” said the doctor. “You’ve got vertebrae fragments scattered around that need to be cleaned up. We’re also going to fuse C5 and C7 together with a titanium piece. It’s critical we do this now so that the spinal cord isn’t subjected to any more damage.”
Through his watery eyes, Lee nodded in agreement. Soon after, he was wheeled into the OR.
* * *
Life is what it is, and sometimes you’re a lot better off joining it, rather than lamenting over it, or fighting it. That’s how Lee saw it, anyway. And this became immediately clear as soon as he came to from the surgery, when a sense of hope encompassed him. The road ahead wasn’t going to be easy, but at least he had a road. And if the only means of getting around is in a wheelchair, then so be it. It’s a highly admirable attitude, given the range of his disabilities: paralyzed chest down, partial upper arm muscle deficits, unable to move fingers, no abdominal contractions, unable to yell because his diaphragm can’t contract, inability to maintain body temperature, and an inability to sweat.
Much of his acceptance of his “new normal” came from spending a month at TIRR in Houston, which is one of the world’s most respected and aggressive spinal cord injury rehab centers. There, he saw just how alone he wasn’t. He met numerous 20-year-olds who had been in vehicle or water-related accidents, such as diving head-first into dark, shallow rivers. The higher up on the spine the injury is, the more severe the limitations. C1 and C2 injuries were the worst: complete paralysis of arms and legs, limited head and neck movement, trouble breathing without assistance, and ability to speak sometimes impaired. There, in his wheelchair, as a therapist tied his shoes, how fortunate Lee felt to be able to freely move his arms. How lucky he felt to be able to drop his limp fingers onto a computer keyboard and type a college essay or search the web.
“It’s the putting on the socks that sucks,” he says. ‘I can’t do it. With those, I need help. And jeans…well, I can put them on, but they just take fiveever.”
Fiveever. It’s his own little neologism that describes the act of doing something taking longer than forever. Or, as we might hear phonetically…fourever.
“I’m good,” he says. “I’ve accepted this life and do what I can do. I’m attending classes at Texas State University, working on a degree in Therapeutic Recreation, and that’s a big deal to me. I hope for two things: to work in a spinal rehab center, and that my disability will improve. You have to have hope. I mean, why not? Look at technology. It’s way on my side as there are cars out there that are designed so I can drive. So, yeah, as a whole, I’m good.”
And that’s where I come in…into his room. For the past six years, I’ve been training him there, doing whatever I can to build strength in whatever areas possible. He has a pair of special gloves that allow him to hold onto barbells and dumbbells. I also have him pull on elastic cords in all directions, as well as have him work with a medicine ball that he catches and throws with the heels of his hands.
No, we’re not running sprints on the intramural field anymore. To train Lee for aerobic conditioning is certainly out of the question. And as for basketball…will Lee ever shoot one again? What are the chances? Many would say slim to none. But never say never, as his workouts are not just to build and maintain strength, but to hopefully wake up a nerve somewhere—to fire up a neuron that’ll send a long-awaited signal to the brain that says, “Hey, remember me? I’m alive!”
Copyright Ros Hill 2017