A Paraplegic Perspective (Interview with Wesley Branch)

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I sent my lifelong best friend, Wesley Branch, a few questions about his perspective after his spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed. My initial plan was to write a blog about it, but I enjoyed the whole interview too much to change it at all. Wes-B has always been the intelligent one in the group anyway. Here it goes..

 

1. For those that don’t know, tell us about your injury.
• I remember it like it was yesterday. The details are still extremely vivid, but I guess that’s the case when something big happens in your life, good or bad. Everything was going good in life; had a great career, was making great money, good health, friends, and just about everything that a normal guy in his 20’s would aim for. Woke up November 7, 2014 (it was a Saturday), just another normal day and the weather was awesome! My dad, brother, and I had already planned to get some riding in on a friend’s motor cross track down the road from my house, so as soon as I woke up I began to get excited about
that. I’ve always been a sucker for adrenaline filled sports, just gets your blood flowing! After a few warm up laps on the track we all decided to take a break from riding, plus I had to check on my son, Jax, who was there watching us from the picnic table beside the track. I was the first to get back out there and continue riding after our breather. I hit the track feeling good and made a really good pass my first lap, not a care in the world. Then
it happened, the biggest life changing moment that I have ever been through. I hit a double (motor cross jump with two hills) and my front tire pointed downwards causing me to fly over the handle bars as me and my bike soared through the air. I knew at that exact moment that I was about to wreck, but never in a million years would I have thought I would become paralyzed. That’s what happened. I landed on my helmet and my legs came over the top of my head like a scorpion and fractured my 5th and 6th vertebrae at the thoracic level. When I landed it’s like I knew exactly what happened, even though I have never even met a paralyzed person in my entire life or knew anything about paralysis, I still knew what I just did to myself. After the first few minutes of shock wore off a plethora of thoughts came into my head. First, it was fear-the thought of dying, though very brief, flashed across my eyes and I prayed for God to look after my friends and family, but most importantly, my son. Second, it was anger-after I knew I wasn’t going to die, I became very angry with myself, I was pissed off that I would do something so stupid that would change my life forever. Third, it was calmness-as I laid there looking up through the trees, rays of light shimmering through the clouds and down into the canopy of leaves above, I knew that everything would be alright. I knew that I would live and although there would be rough patches, I would make it through. About 10-15 minutes later my dad and brother got back on the track and found me laying on the ground about 20 feet from my bike, they called 911 and I was airlifted to LSU in Shreveport for emergency surgery. After a few weeks of physical and occupational rehab at Touro Infirmary in New Orleans, I came home and began my new life.

2. What single life lesson have you learned from life in a wheelchair?
• Well, I have learned so many lessons from this new life, it’s almost impossible to give one answer. If I had to, I guess it would be to never take “life” for granted. Anything can happen at any minute, so do things that make you happy and try to make others happy in the process!

3. What is one thing you wish you had not taken for granted before you got injured?
• Also a tough question. Even though I lived a great life before my injury, doing things that a lot of people would love to do, I still wish that I would not have taken my health and abilities for granted. Especially martial arts, I always wanted to keep competing, but I would just keep putting it off. I thought it would always be there for me. I kept letting unimportant things get in the way of what I truly loved to do. I wish I could go back and change that.

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4. What has been the key to your success, despite adversity?
• I feel like giving up is one of the easiest things you can do in life, but it has no reward. Do not mistake being defeated for giving up; they are two different things. One can be defeated (as in a basketball game, football game, or martial arts match), but they may have given it their all. Giving up, on the other hand, is a state of mind. Being defeated isn’t always a choice, but giving up is. Even though I know that my life is different and there are tons of things I cannot do like I used to do, I still refuse to let that define me as a
person. I am too hard headed to let something stop me from doing what I want to do, but I have been like that ever since I was a kid. I think the fact that I know there are other people in the world that have it worse than I do, pushes me to never give up or never stop. It can always be worse!

5. I know you had a rough childhood. Which was more difficult to overcome, your injury or your childhood?
• Growing up, I think I may have lived in 10 different places and went to about that many schools. I was raised a lot by my grandparents who didn’t have a lot of money, but they always kept me fed and a roof over my head. My parents were pretty young when I was born. I think my mom was 16 and my dad was 19, so I can only imagine what it was like trying to raise a kid at that age, especially with no help. I don’t blame my parents for how I was raised. You never know why people do the things they do. I do know that the resilience I show now most likely comes from my upbringing. It’s also the reason I try my hardest to be the best dad I can be to my son. So, to answer the question, I guess my
childhood toughened me up so I was able to overcome the difficulties from my injury.

6. After one successful career and then being unable to return to it, where did you find the strength to go back to school and start over?
• You know, the funny thing is even though I had a great career and was making a good bit of money, I never felt that it was a fulfilling job. I always wanted to go back to school and try a different career path after I graduated college the first time, but I guess I was kind of scared. I had bills and a family to take care of, plus I did not want to be a broke college kid again. So, after the injury it was a no-brainer for me. I know myself and I know that I can’t just sit around and do nothing the rest of my life, going back to school was the best option since I couldn’t return to my old job. It was something I wanted to do
anyway!

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7. What preconceived ideas did you have about people in wheelchairs that you now either understand more deeply or realize you were totally wrong about?
• To be honest, I didn’t know shit about people in wheelchairs. I knew about Christopher Reeve and the accident he had on his horse, but he was a quadriplegic with no use in his arms. I didn’t know about the different levels of paraplegia like cervical injuries, thoracic injuries, and lumbar injuries and how each area controls a different part of your body. All that stuff was so foreign to me, plus coming from a small town I never encountered many individuals living with a disability. It’s not that I didn’t care about people like that, it just never really crossed my mind. I also thought people in wheelchairs just had movement problems, like muscle function. I never understood that they deal with so much else like bowel, bladder, and sexual problems. Now that I know a great deal about people with disabilities, I have so much more respect for someone living with something like this. It takes mental, physical, and spiritual strength.

8. How has being in a wheelchair affected your faith?
• Being in a wheelchair has really opened my mind to a lot of things, religion being one of them. Growing up, I always believed in God because that’s what I was taught to believe. It wasn’t until my 20’s that I started thinking that maybe there isn’t a God; Darwinism and the Theory of Evolution was making more sense to me. I think that when everything is going good in life, it is easy to forget about a God or spirituality. I had so many great things in my life that I worked hard for that I started believing that the reason I had all those things was because of me and me only. I felt like believing that the Lord blessed me with such a great life and all the possessions I had would take away from all the hard work I put in in my life. When my old life got taken away from in the blink of an eye, I realized that those material things don’t even really matter. It’s what you believe in. It’s what you put your faith in. I also realized it is very hard to get through this life without knowing that someone like God has your back, to know that there is someone who can handle all your faults and mistakes makes it easier to get through hard times. I now pray every day because I am so thankful for everything I have in life, I am very blessed and now I know that it’s not just me that made it this way, it is also the Lord.

9. If you were suddenly able to walk again, what would you want to do first?
• Pee standing up??? OK that was a joke! Honestly I would want to just go for a run, maybe through the woods, go walk on the beach, get in some work on the heavy bag, beat my son in a foot race (cause he’s always out running me in my wheelchair), go hiking, or do some jujitsu. There are so many things I would do!

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10. What would you like to tell anyone who has just recently had a similar injury?
• The first year is the hardest, but it does get better. You will learn to live a new life and do things that you never thought possible. I would tell them to be happy and spread positivity because there is always someone looking up to you whether it’s a kid, family, friend, or someone you don’t even know. Do not let the injury define who you are. You are unique and there is no one else like you!

11. Why do you want to go in to occupational therapy?
• I have always gravitated towards being healthy and physical fitness, and to be able to help others with those things would be an awesome job, I believe. I think with me being disabled, it would give hope to someone that is newly injured to see me working with them. It would show other disabled people that they can do whatever they want in life and maybe give them a little hope for the future. Plus, if I were to work with others that are paralyzed, I could answer questions and give tips that an able-bodied therapist could not.

12. Have you noticed people treating you differently since being in a wheelchair?
• • Yes and no. You’re always going to have a few people who don’t know anything about people with disabilities, and you really can’t blame them. They may not be bad people; they are just ignorant to the capabilities or lack thereof of someone in a wheelchair. I have had my fair share of run-ins with these types of people, as in taking up the disabled bathroom, using up a handicap parking spot, or trying to push me out of the way like I’m some kind of inanimate object. But, all in all, most people I come in contact with are nice
and genuinely care about others thoughts and feelings. The world isn’t nearly as bad as the news and social media would make you believe!

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13. If you were to wake up with 1 million dollars to use in anyway you see fit, what would you choose to do with it?
• Well in today’s time a million bucks won’t get you very far! I have always said that if I come across a large sum of money, I would have to give some to the Shriners Hospital. My grandfather use to take me there as a kid to see his other grandson that had a muscle degenerative disease, and every kid there was being taken care of for free! Not only that, the staff actually cared about all the patients, so I’ve always been fond of that hospital and said I would donate if I ever could. Other than that, I would have to help out my grandmother somehow because of all the things she has done for me since my injury. If
there was anything left, I would have to pay off some medical bills and build a more accessible house!

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