By Michaela Gibson Morris
Even if the odds are long, it’s not wise to bet against Brad Waddle.
Thirteen months ago, the Mooreville man was in intensive care with a broken neck, only able to blink his eyes and talk.
“It’s the small stuff you take for granted.” Waddle said, like writing, washing your face and using a fork. “You wake up one day and you can’t do anything for yourself.”
Today he can walk, use his hands and arms and continues the fight to regain a completely independent life. During his therapy sessions, he doesn’t use any canes or walkers. In the rest of the world, he often uses a walker to guard against falls.
“He continues to amaze us with his progress,” said Alison Farley, a physical therapist at NMMC Outpatient Rehabilitation Center in Tupelo, who works with Waddle twice a week.
Waddle’s progress is hard won. From the beginning of his journey, he has put all of himself into recovery. He’s dedicated to the stretching and homework his therapists give him. He walks a mile on a treadmill each day.
“You have to get past feeling sorry for yourself. It’s the main thing you can’t do,” Waddle said. “I had already told everyone I was going to get better. So I couldn’t be a liar.”
Incomplete spinal cord injuries like Waddle’s leave the door open for improvement, but there are no guarantees. Not everyone will have the same capacity for recovery, and they will need a tremendous will to make the most of that capacity.
“It’s the unfortunate truth of spinal cord injury that recovery is often partial at best,” said physical medicine physician Dr. Brian Condit, director of the NMMC Rehabilitation Institute, where Waddle went through two months of intensive therapy. “Stubbornness can pay off. He’s really come a tremendous distance.”
Waddle appreciates how far he’s come, but he’s pushing to keep going.
“The doctor tells me I’m unbelievable,” Waddle said of Condit. “The first time I walked in he was grinning from ear to ear.”
Prior to his accident, Brad Waddle, who grew up in Fulton, was very active. He worked in the timber industry. He worked out five days a week – a habit that has proved invaluable in his recovery.
The accident that changed his life started with a toy.
“I had always wanted one of those remote control helicopters,” Waddle said.
He was flying it during a barbecue with friends on Aug. 5, 2012, when it got stuck in a tree. He climbed up after it.
“I got the helicopter down safely, but I didn’t come down safely.”
He fell 25 feet and broke his neck between the third and fourth vertebrae. He remembers waking up face down, not being able to move anything. He was in ICU at North Mississippi Medical Center-Tupelo for a week.
“I couldn’t feel anything in my legs or arms,” Waddle said. “All I could do was blink my eyes and talk.”
He spent another week on a transition floor before moving to the Rehab Institute. There he and his family had a sobering conversation with Dr. Condit.
“My mom (Shirley Childers of Fulton) came out and asked ‘Will he walk again?’” Waddle remembered. “He said, ‘What you see now is probably all you’ll ever have.’”
When Dr. Condit left, Waddle turned to his family and said, “He doesn’t know who I am. I’m too hard-headed. I will walk again.”
The first twitch
At the beginning of his stay in the rehab institute, he required a mechanical lift to get out of bed and into a wheel chair. They started with stretching his limbs. First order of business was to see if he could tap into the muscles in his trunk to hold a sitting position.
“That’s a horrible, horrible feeling. … I was used to doing everything for myself. Every aspect is turned upside down,” Waddle said.
He told his therapists he was committed to doing the work it would take to get back on his feet.
“When you think we’ve gone too far, I want to do more. Push me to the limit,” he told them.
One day after rehab about two weeks into his stay, he had the first big break-through.
“I was laying in bed looking at my feet, thinking move, move, move.”
His toes switched.
“It was overwhelming,” Waddle said, who was able to share that first victory with his mom 9/4/13 confirm mom’s name
About three weeks in, he was able to start getting some movement in his arms.
“Ecstatic is not the word,” Waddle said.
He progressed to using a sliding board to get to the wheelchair with help. He remembers occupational therapist Lisa Brown saying, “I told the doctor you would be able to do this.”
The little victories kept coming. One day after the end of the session, he and Brown were chatting when she challenged him.
“I want you to stand up,” he remembers her saying.
“How?” he asked.
“She said, ‘Put your hands beside you and stand up.’ I did.”
They called everyone over to see. His mom thought he had fallen.
“That was the best feeling, being able to stand up by myself,” he said.
When he completed his two-month stay at the Rehab Institute, he was able to shuffle from place to place with the platform walker – a taller version of a regular walker with more support for the upper body. He initially went home to his mom’s house in Fulton.
When he started outpatient rehab in October, he’d come a long way, said occupational therapist Amy Moody, but he wasn’t independent or ready to stop. He could move from chair to chair and had very limited use of his arms and his hands.
“His coordination was really bad,” Moody said.
He couldn’t write legibly and still needed help with dressing and other basic daily tasks.
By Christmas, Waddle was able to master the basic daily tasks – such as washing, eating and cooking – and safety measures, like being able to call for help and get out of the house in case of fire – in order to be able to move home to Mooreville.
But he didn’t stop there. Once he started working on the treadmill in therapy, he got his therapists’ blessing to get one for home.
“In the beginning I was only doing five or six minutes at a time,” Waddle said. Now he walks a mile most days. He works on his fine motor skills with basic tasks like folding laundry or a Connect 4 game.
For Waddle, the recipe to maximize a recovery is straightforward.
“Whatever they tell you to do, do it, even if it seems like sheets and sheets of homework,” he said. “Don’t go home and sit down and give up.”
His dedication is what has allowed him to come as far as he has.
“Most people would have plateaued,” Moody said. “He keeps improving. … I’ve learned not to put limits on him.”
Waddle’s goal over the summer was to not require a wheel chair when he came to therapy.
During his sessions he went from using a walker to using a cane. Now he spends the entire therapy session under his own power.
“I’ve walked for an hour with no assistive device,” Waddle said.
The next great challenge is driving. Waddle has been working in a car with hand controls, but he just passed his driving test showing adequate reaction time between gas and brake.
“My next goal is to get in my truck and go wherever I want to go,” Waddle said.
His recovery still faces obstacles. He has to fight a kind of stiffness in his muscles called tone – where the muscles want to remain extended or contracted. Medicine and walking help, but the tone especially makes fine motor skills challenging.
His family, including his two teenage daughters, and friends have been tremendously supportive. He also takes a lot of inspiration from his brother Bryan Waddle, who has multiple sclerosis.
“I see how hard he has worked,” Waddle said. “He has always had determination.”
Waddle approaches his recovery with a single-minded focus.
“Emily Word from LIFE gave me the best advice,” while he was still in the hospital, he said. “If you’re going to get better, your job going forward is to get better.”