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Spinal Cord Injury Paralysis Resource Center

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Nothing's Impossible

Brad Burns Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation tattoo

Brad Burns' Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation tattoo

By: Janelle LoBello

Name: Brad Burns
Injury: Incomplete quadriplegia 
Mechanism of Injury: Auto accident
Date of Injury: May 31, 2008

Brad Burns says he is happier now than he was before the auto accident that left him living with quadriplegia in May 2008 at the age of 24 ... and he has a Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation tattoo to prove it.

Burns, now 26, went from having his C4, 5, and 6 vertebra fused together, a C5 burst fracture, broken right ribs, lacerated lungs, two torn muscles in his right deltoid, and an open-book fracture of his pelvis, to now being able to walk independently with just a front-wheeled walker.

"Essentially my C5 vertebra exploded during the impact," explains Burns. "I had surgery to pull the pieces of it out of my spinal cord.  They then used a cadaver bone to replace my C5 vertebra.  After that, they fused C4 to C6 together with a titanium plate."

Read more about Brad:

"I remember the doctor coming in and telling me I was only going to have movement in my left biceps," recalls Burns. "That was my original diagnosis; that I was going to have movement in my left biceps and eventually I would get off the ventilator."

An angry situation
Burns experienced nerve pain, but it took approximately one month before Burns had any return of feeling. "I had really no movement for the first two months, then began to have spasms that were really intense and the slightest touch would trigger them.  It got to a point that when I was in the power chair, if I hit a little crack on the ground I would spasm into the fetal position."

According to Burns, the first six months after his accident were the hardest for him. "I wished I had died and was very angry about the situation I had put myself in.  Depressed doesn't begin to cover it," explains Burns. "Like in the book, Nothing Is Impossible, Christopher Reeve talks about dreaming he's able to walk. I experienced the same thing.  When I was asleep, I was normal. Or, even worse, I would dream that I was hurt and then had a complete recovery. Then I would wake up in pain from the injuries, plus the ventilator, and was unable to speak more than a few words for weeks."

Burns would not allow himself to give up. "I felt sorry for myself for weeks before my dad came up with a system," says Burns. "I was given 10 minutes every morning to cry and feel sorry for myself; then it was time to start rehab and get better. I stopped listening to people who tried to put limitations on me and started setting goals.  Small realistic goals.  Goals like being able to grab a cup, eat an apple, and when I accomplished that, I would set more." 

Worth the fight

Stan Yoo with fellow Temple residents

Burns performing locomotor training

By the end of October, Burns was back at home in Worthington, Ohio. Around Thanksgiving 2008, he started his therapy at the Reeve Foundation's NeuroRecovery Network facility (NRN) at Ohio State Medical Center. Burns was performing locomotor training five days a week, two hours a day, of what he considers intense workouts.

The NeuroRecovery Network is a cooperative network of cutting-edge rehabilitation centers designed to provide and develop therapies to promote functional recovery and improve the health and quality of life of people living with paralysis.

Locomotor training is the method of physical therapy currently deployed by the NRN. In locomotor training sessions the body of the paralyzed patient is suspended in a harness over a treadmill, while specially-trained therapists move their legs to simulate walking. As the patient regains function, he moves from the treadmill to conventional walking. No two NRN patients will respond in exactly the same way, nor is each patient likely to experience the entire range of possible changes and improvements.

"It was an absolute amazing opportunity to get better," says Burns. "It's definitely the hardest thing in my life I have gone through, but definitely worth it."

Jeff Buehner, Burns' therapist at the NRN, describes Burns' function during his first session. "He was dependent on a power wheelchair," explains Buehner. "He had had minimal or no use of his right upper extremity; his left arm was starting to get mobility back, but limited; his hand function was pretty much non existent, with some gross upper extremity movement in his left arm. He had no trunk control whatsoever. During his first evaluation, it took the maximum assistance of three people to get him into a standing position. And it was a pretty ugly looking stand, as you can imagine!"

Burns set a goal to be walking within a few years, but it happened within six weeks of being at the NRN. He started with a platform walker. Burns describes the platform walker as, "essentially two attachments, one on either side of the walker, which allowed me to rest my forearms on it because I wasn't strong enough to grab with my hands and support my upper body."

"When they finally were able to get me on a platform walker, I was able to take my first steps; which was absolutely amazing," recalls Burns. "I remember the first time I went home, I said to my mom, ‘Mom, I'm going to be able to walk everyday now.' It was only a few steps down the hallway, but still it was amazing."

Where Brad is now

Burns, using a platform walker, with his sister

Burns, using a platform walker, with his sister

Burns eventually graduated from a platform walker to a regular front-wheeled walker, then to canes, to an over-ground walker. Burns and his therapists are now trying to get rid of the walker entirely. He is currently performing locomotor training four days a week, two hours a day, and has had over 275 sessions of training. During his therapy sessions, Burns is training with two canes, and without any assistive device.

"Now he is swinging his right leg through independently and much more easily," explains Buehner of Burns' current condition. "Our big focus right now is getting away from the walker. Our over-ground sessions at this point only require me stabilizing his pelvis, no trunk support, no leg assistance whatsoever, and ultimately working on him coordinating and controlling his leg movements. Now his pace, if I stabilize his pelvis correctly, is above normal walking speed, a 2.5-mile-per-hour gait, with the quality of his gait improving on a daily basis. Our ultimate goal right now is to increase his pelvic and trunk strength and stability to where he doesn't need me supporting his pelvis."

"One of the most fascinating and important things to keep in mind," explains Buehner, "and I preach this to anyone who will listen, is that Brad, and many other patients like Brad, do not show sufficient gains in recovery of function right away.  It often takes months before ambulation becomes feasible once beginning locomotor training.  Brad began ambulating about two to three months into the program. Then his progress took off.  That's huge. We feel privileged to be part of a program [the NRN] where we have this opportunity. Conventional outpatient physical therapy settings are not often conducive to such intense and frequent sessions of longer durations."

Walking to walk
Burns believes simply that locomotor training and the NRN can not be duplicated. "There's nothing out there that gets you moving the way that this does," explains Burns. "You're up, you're body is supported, and you feel the weight shooting through, and it really gets to a point where you can feel it start to kick in. The intensity of the workouts can not be replicated. It's like your body starts to remember how you used to walk."

From a therapist's point of view, Buehner, a physical therapist for ten years, notes the importance of the NRN. "The part that blows my mind," says Buehner, "even as a therapist these last ten years, is that you know there are so many patients all over the country like Brad who didn't have the opportunity to get into a program like this, that are sitting in a wheelchair right now that should not be. There is so much work being done within the NeuroRecovery Network as we speak. I truly believe it's a matter of time, it can't be soon enough that we can provide this to more people."

Aside from his physical improvements, Burns says, "People are often surprised when I tell them that I'm happier now than I was before the accident.  It's amazing the things we take for granted and the things we stress over.  I'm far from living in a state of bliss, but my perspective has forever changed.  Things I used to lose sleep over don't even faze me the slightest, and it's just so much easier to keep a good state of mind.  The thing that bothers me now, is that I think everyone deserves the same opportunities I was afforded."

Tell me about your tats

Burns and his high school football buddy Luiz

Burns and his high school football buddy Luiz

Burns has a tattoo on his left bicep that indicates how grateful he is to be able to walk again. "The two numbers are mine and a good friend's football jersey numbers when we were in school. Mine was 21. He helped me out through a lot of stuff. I got the Christopher Reeve Foundation logo and ‘Nothing's Impossible' because I wanted to do something that meant a lot to me, and obviously this program, it's hard to put into words how much it has meant to me. From the friendships I've made, how far along they have gotten me. My life is completely different now from when I started."

Dream Imagine Become Achieve

Dream Imagine Become Achieve

Another tattoo on Burns' forearm reads: "Dream Imagine Become and Achieve." His sister posted signs, "If you can dream it, if you can imagine it, you can become it, you can achieve it" that helped him through bad nights in the hospital.   

Learn More
Learn all about how the Reeve Foundation's NeuroRecovery Network is developing and expanding access to activity-based therapies, resulting in improved health, quality of life, and function.

Tell us your story
Telling your story is one way to let anyone touched by paralysis know that they are not alone. We've created a place where you can share your journey for your benefit, and the benefit of others. Your story matters. Share it!

The Alan T Brown Foundation to Cure ParalysisFormed to support research in spinal cord injury.

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Pediatric SCI (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Aquatic Therapy (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Rehabilitation (PDF)
Rehabilitation (Spanish)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Rehabilitation - Choosing facility (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Fitness and Exercise (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on New Injury Top 10 Questions (PDF) - EnglishA Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on New Injury Top 10 Questions (PDF) - Spanish

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Umbilical Cord Blood Banking (PDF)

American Academy of Physical Medicine and RehabilitationAs the premier medical society for the specialty of physical medicine and rehabilitation, AAPM&R is the only organization exclusively serving the needs of practicing PM&R physicians. With more than 7,500 members, the Academy represents more than 87 percent of US physiatrists and international colleagues from 37 countries.

American Physical Therapy Association (APTA)Main membership organization for the PT profession, furthering the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of movement dysfunctions.

The Australian Spinal Research FoundationFunds research for treatments of spinal cord injuries.

American Therapeutic Recreation Association (ATRA)ATRA is the largest, national membership organization representing the interests and need of recreational therapists. Recreational therapists are health care providers using recreational therapy interventions for improved functioning of individuals with illness or disabling conditions.

American Speech-Language-Hearing AssociationASHA is the professional association for audiologists, speech-language pathologists, as well as speech, language and hearing scientists.

The American Congress of RehabilitationServes people with disabling conditions by promoting rehabilitation research and the transfer of technology.

Association of Rehabilitation NursesPromotes and accredits rehab nurses and promotes the philosophy of care of the nursing professional.

The Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Association (ALS)Funds numerous projects to develop treatments for ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease).

American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA)Advances the field of occupational therapy through standard-setting, advocacy, education, and research.

Aquaticnet.comTherapists. Instructors. Managers. To all in the Aquatics industry. This is your single online clearinghouse of aquatic therapy and fitness information. Why re-create the (aquatic therapy) wheel? We are The Aquatic Therapy Command Center.

Clinical TrialsAn internet resource with current listings of all federally supported clinical trials in the U.S., sorted by disease or condition, location, treatment or sponsor. Developed by the National Library of Medicine.

The Centre for Ambulatory Rehabilitation Research and Education (CARRE)Based in Alberta, Canada, CARRE is a research translational facility that examines various treatments for walking after spinal cord injury.

Center WatchClinical trials listing of industry professionals, patients and info.

Clinical Trials: Ambulation ProgramsList of ambulation programs currently seeking volunteers.

Clinical Trials: Locomotor (treadmill) TrainingList of trials involving locomotor (treadmill) training.

Dana FoundationA nonprofit organization that provides reliable, accessible information on brain and spinal cord research.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)Funds research to develop therapies for many conditions related to paralysis, including traumatic injury and chronic disease.

The International Spinal Research TrustISRT is the only charity based in the United Kingdom dedicated to funding research to end the permanence of paralysis caused by spinal cord injury.

International Campaign for Cures of Spinal Cord Injury ParalysisA group of organizations around the world that together fund about $25 million a year in SCI research. The members include: the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, Australasian and International Spinal Research Trusts, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Rick Hansen Institute and Kent Waldrep National Paralysis Foundation.

High Hopes Head Injury ProgramThe High Hopes Head Injury Program was started in 1975, as a result of tough hard work and need of several families. This one-of-a-kind non-profit charitable organization was dedicated to the rehabilitation and retraining of their loved ones who had been devastated by traumatic head injuries.

Model Systems Knowledge Translation CenterThe factsheets listed at the MSKTC were produced through a collaboration between the MSKTC and the SCI Model Systems. These materials undergo expert and consumer reviews to ensure they are up-to-date, evidence-based, and consumer-friendly.

Kosair Charities Center for Pediatric NeuroRecovery at the University of LouisvilleThe Kosair Charities Center for Pediatric NeuroRecovery provides activity-based therapies to promote recovery from neurologic injury in children; conducts research to enhance recovery; and trains families, practitioners and scientists to maximize recovery and improve the quality of life for children and their families. In short, we are here to help kids kick paralysis and through science have every reason to hope.

Lokomat at Sister KennyLokomat® is a robot-assisted treadmill that supports a patient in an upright position while moving the legs through a normal walking pattern – even if a patient is unable to move his or her legs independently.

Model Systems Centers for Spinal Cord InjuryA federally funded program of 14 specialty medical and/or rehabilitation centers across the US. The SCI Care System collects and submits acute, rehabilitation and follow-up (annual, long-term post-discharge) data on SCI patients who received care in the these centers following injury.

The Mike Utley FoundationProvides financial support of selected research, rehabilitation and education programs on spinal cord injuries.

Myelin ProjectFunds research for diseases related to loss of myelin (a fatty insulation on nerve fibers) including multiple Sclerosis and leukodystrophy.

Lokomat Program at Rehabilitation Institute of ChicagoThe Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) provides robot-assisted walking therapy using the Lokomat® to help people improve their ability to walk after disability caused by brain and spinal cord injuries, stroke or neurological and orthopedic conditions.

The National Center for Medical Rehabilitation ResearchNCMRR supports research on enhancing the daily functioning of people with disabilities and hopes to improve mobility, assistive technology and therapies.

National Rehabilitation Association (NRA)Not long after Congress passed the National Rehabilitation Act of 1920, the National Rehabilitation Association (NRA) began its commitment to persons with disabilities. As the oldest and strongest advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities, NRA's mission is to provide advocacy, awareness and career advancement for professionals in the fields of rehabilitation. Their members include rehab counselors, physical, speech and occupational therapists, job trainers, consultants, independent living instructors and other professionals involved in the advocacy of programs and services for people with disabilities.

National Rehabilitation Information Center for Independence (NARIC)NARIC offers a range of services, from quick information and referral to extensive database searches of the latest disability and rehabilitation research. They also offer a number of publications, including directories, guides and statistical reports.

The National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation ResearchNIDRR supports research focused on improving the quality of life for people with disabilities.

The National MS SocietyThe National MS Society is a collective of passionate individuals who want to do something about MS now -- to move together toward a world free of multiple sclerosis. MS stops people from moving. We exist to make sure it doesn't.

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and StrokeProvides research overviews for all diseases and conditions related to paralysis.

The Paralysis Project of AmericaBased in Los Angeles, The Paralysis Project of America funds selected scientific and clinical studies that focus on spinal cord repair and regeneration.

RT 300 FES BikeRTI designs and markets innovative electrical stimulation ergometers to help people with a neurological impairment achieve their full potential.

Reeve Foundation NeuroRecovery Network (NRN)The Reeve Foundation NRN is a perfect example of basic science being translated to the clinic and changing lives. Funded by the Reeve Foundation through a cooperative agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is a network of cutting-edge rehabilitation centers whose staffs have been trained in intensive activity-based treatments.

The Rick Hansen Man in Motion FoundationCreated in Canada in 1988 to support spinal cord injury research, as well as wheelchair sport, injury prevention and rehabilitation programs.

SpinalCure AustraliaEstablished in 1994 to fund scientific research to find a cure for paralysis.

Sprint AquaticsOver the years Rothhammer International, commonly referred to as Sprint Aquatics, has been designing and patenting products that continue to revolutionize the aquatic industry. As the current owner, Laurel Maas's primary goal for Sprint Rothhammer was and continues to be creating products that meet the needs of those who use the pool as a form of physical therapy, training, and recreation.

Paralysis Resource Center The Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center Information Specialists are reachable business weekdays, Monday through Friday, toll-free at 800-539-7309 from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm ET. You may also schedule a call or send a message online.

Reeve Foundation Online Paralysis Community Connecting people living with paralysis, families, friends and caregivers so we can share support, experience, knowledge, and hope.

Quality of Life Grants DatabaseFind resources within the PRC Quality of Life Grants Database. Search by Zip Code, State or an Entire Category.

Library Books and VideosFind resources within the PRC library catalog.

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The Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center Information Specialists are reachable business weekdays, Monday through Friday, toll-free at 800-539-7309 from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm Eastern U.S. Time. International callers use 973-467-8270. You may also schedule a call or send a message online.

This project was supported, in part by grant number 90PR3002, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.