Local firefighter determined to walk again
A few weeks ago, Michael OﾒBrien, of Green Bank, took a drive.
It may not sound like a big deal, but considering that OﾒBrien hasnﾒt been able to drive for nearly eight months, it was a huge achievement for him.
ﾓOf course, I have to drive an automatic. I canﾒt drive a standard, so Iﾒm stuck in an automatic,ﾔ the 25-year-old said.
OﾒBrien hasnﾒt been able to drive because he is recovering from a serious dirt bike accident, the kind which more often than not, takes the life of its victim.
ﾓWe had been riding and was on the way home,ﾔ he said. ﾓLuckily, I was wearing all my gear. If I didnﾒt have all my gear on, I wouldﾒve gotten killed. I broke my neck, and where my chest protector stops, is where I cracked my scapula. That healed up on its own.ﾔ
OﾒBrien also lost two teeth from the impact of his helmet and broke his left leg.
ﾓI broke my tibia, which is the little bone and the fibula, the big bone, it popped out of the socket and came out the side of my ankle,ﾔ he said. ﾓThereﾒs a little bone that sits above your ankle and it came out. They put it all back together and then the infection got in there. It caused that little bone to reject and eat up my cartilage, and thatﾒs why they had to do the fusion.ﾔ
The worst break OﾒBrien suffered was his C5 cervical vertebrae in his neck.
ﾓThe C5 is where your phrenic nerve is, which controls your diaphragm, controls your breathing,ﾔ he explained. ﾓItﾒs the size of a pencil lead. I broke my vertebrae all around it, but didnﾒt break it [the nerve]. The people that do that, wind up the rest of their life on a ventilator. I was expected to be in the hospital and paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of my life.ﾔ
OﾒBrien didnﾒt let those daunting expectations discourage him. He never lost control of his arms, and only lost feeling from the waist down for one month.
ﾓWhen I woke up, I didnﾒt have any trouble using my hands, but I didnﾒt have any feeling from the waist down,ﾔ he said. ﾓIf you would hit it [my leg] real hard, I could feel it. I could feel pain if somebody would pinch me or pull on my skin.ﾔ
OﾒBrien slowly regained use of his legs while he was recovering at Ruby Memorial in Morgantown.
ﾓOne night I got out of the shower, I was in my chair getting back to my bed, and I was thinking [about] moving my toes and I looked down and my toes were moving,ﾔ he said. ﾓYou donﾒt know how excited you get over the little things. Very, very slowly, the right leg came back and then the left leg started back. The left leg basically came back since Iﾒve been home.ﾔ
Once the movement slowly started coming back, OﾒBrien was transferred to HealthSouthﾠ MountainView Regional Rehabilitation Hospital in Morgantown, where he spent 104 days regaining his strength.
ﾓIn your mind, you donﾒt really know how bad you are,ﾔ he said. ﾓThe low for me is they had me on the edge of the mat and they had these paddles with handles on them, and they told me to push down and scoot back. I didnﾒt even have enough strength to push down and scoot back. I couldnﾒt curl a five pound barbell. That was the ultimate low.ﾔ
With the help of his physical therapists and support of family and friends, OﾒBrien slowly regained his strength and was soon walking again.
ﾓThat place, HealthSouth, it was so great,ﾔ he said. ﾓThey actually had me trying to do some stairs and I was gaining slowly. Since Iﾒve been home, I keep gaining and gaining. I do some home therapy to keep it up.ﾔ
When OﾒBrien went for a check-up with his spine specialist, he amazed the doctor with his progress.
ﾓThe first time I went back to see him, he asked my name, and I told him. He said ﾑI just read your report, and I didnﾒt expect to walk in and see what Iﾒm seeing. I was expecting to walk in and basically see a non-functioning paralyzed patient,ﾒﾔ he recalled. ﾓI showed him I could move my arms and he could see I could move my legs. He went and got another doctor to show him. He said, ﾑIﾒve been a spine surgeon since 1972, and I can count on one hand the people Iﾒve seen that had an outcome like you got.ﾒﾔ
On November 9, OﾒBrien came home with the help of his co-workers from Shavers Fork Fire and Rescue.
ﾓThe guys from work, they brought the ambulance to Morgantown to make it easier to ride home,ﾔ he said.
OﾒBrien said it is support like that that has amazed him through all this.
ﾓThe one thing I canﾒt believe is how good the community has been to me,ﾔ he said. ﾓThe churches, the people, they really kept me strong. The guys at work, I can never say enough about the guys I work with. When I woke up in ICU and I kind of got my bearings back together, I looked up and here come all the guys from work. Several of them made several trips to rehab in Morgantown to keep me on track.ﾔ
Now that he is home, OﾒBrien is ready to get back to his old routine.
ﾓIﾒve crossed every hurdle but walking and Iﾒve got about five more weeks before I can start putting weight on that [left] leg,ﾔ he said. ﾓMy plan is to get back into that rehab center for awhile. I think thereﾒs no doubt Iﾒm going to walk. My goal is to get back to being a firefighter/EMTI [EMT Intermediate] like I was. Back on that truck and things I enjoy.ﾔ
For now, OﾒBrien is back to work, part-time, doing paperwork at SFFR.
ﾓThe toughest thing for me is having to sit in that office and look out the window, and watch that truck go out and not be on it,ﾔ he said. ﾓThatﾒs really tough on me, but thatﾒs my goal. I know now, Iﾒm going to work until I get there.ﾔ
With the worst days behind him, OﾒBrien has risen from the ashes of his accident. Not unscathed ﾖ he has two steel rods in his neck under a two-inch scar, two new teeth and rods and pins in his leg ﾖ but much wiser.
He has sworn off motorcycles and is even questioning if heﾒll ever ride an ATV again.
ﾓIﾒm definitely done with motorcycles. Iﾒm kind of leery of my four-wheeler now,ﾔ he said. ﾓIf I could get any message out there to anybody ﾖ wear your helmet ﾖ at least. Wear as much protective stuff as you can because I was on a paved road, on my way home and I had my accident. You just never know. I just hope and pray that some of these kids learn from my mistakes. My helmet and chest protector saved my life. Had I not had on my chest protector, I probably would have broken my back. Just looking at the damage to my helmet, that could have been my head, it could have killed me instantly.ﾔ
After this experience, OﾒBrien is ready to share his story with people to let them know the dangers of riding motorcycles and the importance of wearing protective gear.
ﾓI hope when I get better, I can help people,ﾔ he said. ﾓItﾒs scary being in this situation and thereﾒs a lot of advances in the medical field, but when it comes to the spine, thereﾒs a lot of unknowns.ﾔ
OﾒBrien said he hopes to return to HealthSouth as a mentor and talk to spine injury patients.
ﾓItﾒs so much easier to relate to someone thatﾒs been in your situation than it is somebody that hasnﾒt,ﾔ he said. ﾓI hope that I can help somebody in that aspect. Stay strong, keep your head on straight, work hard and stay confident. Iﾒm not going to lie to you, rehab was the toughest thing I had to do in my life. Iﾒve never been in the Army, Iﾒve never been in boot camp, but Iﾒd say itﾒs pretty close [to rehab] because thatﾒs what it takes. It takes somebody pushing you to make you do things you donﾒt want to do to get better.ﾔ
This care and consideration will also carry over into OﾒBrienﾒs work when he returns to his job as a firefighter/EMTI.
ﾓI will have a different outlook on my patients because it used to be, it was a job. You picked them up, you drop them off at the hospital and you kind of went on to the next,ﾔ he said. ﾓNow, I see personally what theyﾒve got ahead of them.ﾔ
OﾒBrien plans to continue his education and become a paramedic this fall. He said with the support of his co-workers at SFFR, his goals are getting closer every day.
ﾓThey know how passionate I am about what I do and my goal,ﾔ he said. ﾓIﾒm not stopping until I get back to what I do.ﾔ