Editor’s Note: When Bryan Kirkland of Leeds, Alabama, lay in the dirt after a tragic motocross accident, he hoped he only had a pinched nerve. But when he discovered that he had a spinal cord injury and never would walk or probably play sports again, this 6’5” 205 pound athlete thought his world was over. The last place he ever thought he would be years later was on the stage with some of the greatest athletes his home state ever had produced. One of the most successful Paralympians ever with gold, silver and bronze medals in wheelchair rugby and a gold medal in the World Games’ track and field, Kirkland was selected to be enshrined in the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in May 2012. He also broke the barrier for wheelchair athletes to be inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame and opened the door for more wheelchair athletes to be recognized across in the United States. Part 2 of a 5 part series.
In 1992, Kirkland went to Macon, Georgia for a race. According to Kirkland, “I was in the first race of the day. I was about halfway through the second lap of the race, when I went over a jump, and my motorcycle got sideways in the air. Once I hit the ground I was thrown off the motorcycle and crashed into a dirt embankment. The left side of my head hit the ground, and I felt like my right ear was shoved into my left shoulder. I was conscious when I hit the ground. My first thought was that the motorcycle was on top of me, since I felt like something was holding me down. My entire body felt like it was on fire, my legs and back were tingling. When I looked down at my body, I could see that the motorcycle was not on top of me. My next thought was, ‘Well, I must have pinched a nerve.’ No one really knows what an injury like this feels like, until it happens. I tried to get up, but I could not move my body. I said to myself, ‘I don’t know what’s happening, but something is wrong.’ The paramedics told me to be still and to try not to move. They put me on a backboard and then in the ambulance, and off to the hospital I went.”
At the hospital, Kirkland was x-rayed while going in and out of consciousness. The first thing he could remember was having an open angel halo brace attached to his skull. “When they started screwing that brace’s bolts into my skull, I couldn’t believe how much it hurt,” Kirkland says. “I felt like someone was trying to crush my head. I was really upset, and I was conscious through the whole ordeal. They tried to relieve some pressure on my spine. At some time after the halo was in place, I was told that I’d broken my neck and crushed the fifth vertebra.”
Kirkland stayed in the hospital in Georgia for 2 days, and then his family had him flown back to Birmingham for surgery at St. Vincent’s Hospital. A portion of bone was taken out of his hip and used with a metal plate and screws to stabilize his 4th, 5th, and 6th vertebrae. “Neither the doctors or the nurses would tell me the quality of life I could expect or how much function I’d get back. All they’d say was, ‘Well, within 2 years, we’ll know about how much function you’ll have the rest of your life.’ I was able to move my arms a little bit, but they were extremely weak. My hands weren’t working at all, but I thought as the swelling went down I’d continue to get more and more function. I began to wonder what I was going to do, would I ever get to walk again, what kind of life would I have, what kind of work would I be able to do, would I be able to live by myself, would I be able to work, and what would I do with my life?
Kirkland stayed in St. Vincent’s Hospital for 5 weeks before transferring to Spain Rehabilitation Center in Birmingham. As Kirkland explains, “Rehab was difficult because I was always lightheaded. Every morning I faced the challenge of trying to sit up and get into my wheelchair. I had blood pressure issues, because I was 6’5” tall, and at the time of my accident, I weighed about 205 pounds. While I was in the hospital and rehab, I weighed 130 pounds. I was told before I could leave rehab I had to gain some weight because I was so weak. I wondered if I would survive, and if I would ever leave rehab. My family, the doctors, the nurses and the physical therapists all worked hard to keep me positive and pushed me to do more every day. They didn’t allow me to sulk. The one thing that helped me more than anything else was each morning when the therapist came in he said, ‘Okay, Bryan, you have to attack today and go at the rehab as hard and as fast as you can go.’”
One part of therapy that Kirkland really enjoyed was drinking milkshakes and eating ice cream to try and gain back at least 5 or 10 pounds, so he could go home. “I had to learn how to do daily skills and how to write again, and I had to do strengthening exercises,” Kirkland says. Once Kirkland finished his therapy, he had some finger movement in his left hand, but his right hand still wasn’t functioning very well. He had to learn to pick objects up a little bit differently than before and had to recognize what he could and couldn’t do. When he was released, he was still required to do outpatient therapy. Within 3 days of his release from Spain Rehab, he returned for his first outpatient therapy session. His condition had improved drastically in that short time. “I went home and started eating balanced meals,” Kirkland recalls. “I was in surroundings I knew and loved and was much more comfortable at home than in the rehab center or the hospital. After only my second outpatient therapy, I was released.” Now Kirkland had to face the real world in a wheelchair. He had no instruction book, no schedule to follow and none of the discipline he was comfortable with as an athlete.
Tomorrow: Quadriplegic Bryan Kirkland Finds Strength, Romance & A Passion For Wheelchair Rugby After Rehab
About the Author: For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at http://www.nighthawkpublications.com