In those first moments after suffering a severe spinal cord injury, Brandon Devonshire didn’t realize how bad it was.
Working as a professional logger, Brandon suffered a severe injury when a tree fell on him, pinning him and putting his spine at an unnatural angle. After his co-workers cut the tree off, he tried to stand.
“I thought, ‘If I can get my feet under me, I’ll walk it off,'” says Brandon. “And it just wasn’t going to happen.”
Emergency responders freed Brandon and took him to the emergency department. He needed surgery to stabilize his spine.
The accident left Brandon temporarily paralyzed, and doctors told him he might not walk again.
Rehabilitation at UPMC Williamsport helped Brandon regain his ability to walk — and also gave him an opportunity to propose to his girlfriend.
More than a year after the accident that left him temporarily paralyzed, Brandon continues to get stronger. And he has big goals, including wanting to compete one day in the Paralympics.
“I would say to have faith and know that you are stronger than what you think,” Brandon says. “Just keep moving. Don’t think about it. Just keep trying to truck it out.”
‘At That Moment, I Thought I Might Die’
Brandon remembers everything from the day of his accident.
He and the rest of his work team were removing trees from a remote location in New York, near the Pennsylvania border. It was July 2020, and the machine his team used to remove trees was wedged against one. His co-workers couldn’t free the machine, so they asked Brandon to cut the tree.
Against his better judgment, Brian agreed. He was worried that the tree could “explode” or fall in any direction.
When he cut the tree, it fell right where he was standing. He tried to get away but couldn’t — the tree caught his shoulder and took him to the ground. The impact forced his head down between his legs, putting his spine at a 90-degree angle.
“At that moment, I thought I might die,” Brandon says. “So, I just started screaming. Not in pain, honestly, because of all the adrenaline. But I knew I wasn’t getting out of it. So I started yelling, and they finally got to me and cut it off me.”
Brandon believes that his faith saved him. While he didn’t die, but he was in bad shape. “Most people think when you’re paralyzed, you don’t feel anything,” Brandon says. “I had over-sensations. It was like pins and needles and fire constantly going through my legs and back.”
It took time for the paramedics to arrive at their remote location. After emergency responders got him out of the woods, he was flown by helicopter to a nearby trauma center.
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‘I Felt a Little Robbed’
Brandon suffered a burst fracture of the spine in the accident. The trauma compressed his spinal cord, leaving him partially paralyzed.
During surgery, doctors inserted two rods and eight screws to stabilize his spine.
“After the surgery, I could just barely flick my one toe,” Brandon says. “It just moved a little bit. And the doctors said, ‘That’s not good.'” They told him he might never regain movement below his waist — and he might need to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
That news hit Brandon hard, especially because he was a standout athlete before he was injured. “The first day, I cried,” he says. “It was a little rough. I felt a little robbed, like my life was robbed of what I love.”
He quickly decided to focus on what he could do — especially because he still had plenty of upper-body strength.
“I looked at my girlfriend, and said, ‘Hey, I’ll just win the [Paralympics],'” Brandon says. The nurses laughed. “And I said, ‘No, I’m serious. I think I could win it. I’m pretty strong still.’ And then it took off from there.”
‘One Step at a Time, Literally’
A few weeks after surgery, Brandon was transferred to UPMC Williamsport to start rehabilitation.
To keep his spine aligned and promote healing, Brandon wore a brace called a thoracic lumbar sacral orthosis (TLSO). His injury had caused compression of his spinal cord. As a result, he was experiencing pain and numbness and needed assistance with daily life.
“The very first day I met him, he was really tearful,” says Melissa Michaluk, DO, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at UPMC Williamsport. “We felt we were going to have to provide quite a bit of motivational talks with him, but he really shined through it. It almost was like after the first day, he realized he had to get up any way he could and do this.”
Brandon’s rehabilitation process at UPMC Williamsport was extensive. It consisted of three hours of physical and occupational therapy each day. He also met with a neuropsychologist and worked with nurses on how to do things like take care of his skin.
Dr. Michaluk says Brandon was one of her most motivated patients, even taking time to work on things outside of therapy.
“It was nice to be able to use this to help other people,” Brandon says. “There were a lot of elderly people there who weren’t in good physical condition. So, I just really tried to be a light for everybody around me. The UPMC facility is fantastic and all the nurses and doctors were just phenomenal.”
Brandon says his faith helped him through the difficult times, and so did his family — especially Cricket, his girlfriend, and their children.
“The support system is very important for people with spinal cord injury, and he has a wonderful support system,” Dr. Michaluk says.
During his stay at UPMC Williamsport, Brandon decided to propose to Cricket. He got help from his mother, who hid his grandmother’s ring in a sandwich bag that was inside some food that Cricket was taking to Brandon. At the hospital, a nurse took the ring out of the bag and gave it to Brandon.
At the right moment, Brandon got on his knee with some assistance and proposed. Cricket said yes.
“I knew she was the right one,” Brandon says. “We’ve been through thick and thin.”
Another major milestone came when he was able to walk again.
“I was using the rails there, and I let go and took a couple sloppy, wobbly steps,” he says. “The doctors didn’t like that too much, but they knew that I was driven to walk.”
Brandon made progress during his three weeks of rehabilitation at UPMC Williamsport. After his discharge, he continued his therapy.
He was able to walk and dance at his wedding.
“We just got there slowly but surely,” he says. “One step at a time — literally.”
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‘I Just Feel Very Blessed’
Nearly 18 months have passed since Brandon’s accident. He and Cricket now have three children.
Although he can’t physically do everything he once did, he still walks, runs, cycles, and more.
“If you happen to catch me on one of my like lazy days walking around in public, you’d probably almost never guess that I had anything wrong with me,” Brandon says. “When it’d cold outside, I move like a robot because the hardware gets cold and I’m stiff. But most days, you’d almost never even know.”
Brandon continues to share his successes with his therapists and meets with Dr. Michaluk on a regular basis.
Dr. Michaluk says Brandon’s recovery is an example of the success stories that can happen in rehabilitation — even after the most devastating injuries.
“He just was so motivated and worked so hard,” Dr. Michaluk says. “I’m thrilled that he’s able to live a full life.”
Brandon believes his story isn’t over. He dreams of participating in the Paralympics one day. But more than that, he feels blessed to have come this far.
“My boys were a blessing themselves,” he says. “Without my wife and three children, I don’t think I would’ve come as far on my journey as I have. I can do a lot more with them than I thought I was going to. I just feel very blessed to be able to still play on the floor with them and get outside, maybe kick a ball, toss a ball, things like that.”
At the UPMC Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, we strive to improve your function after injury or illness. We help people recover from functional, pain-related, and neurological conditions, with both inpatient and outpatient care available. The department is a leader in research, therapy, and advanced rehabilitation technology. We are dedicated to providing you with exceptional clinical care and focused on developing new technologies and treatments to help you achieve mobility and maintain independence. Find a provider near you.