Former Cumberland Valley athlete paralyzed on vacation to train for 2020 Paralympics
Photo courtesy of Brandon Lyons
By Ryan Baillargeon | email@example.com
From his chest down, Brandon Lyons couldn’t feel anything. Not his legs, not his feet, not his toes. This, he tried to explain to his mother while flying on a helicopter bound for the shock trauma center in Baltimore, through frantic sentences, was his new reality.
“Mom, mom, I’m paralyzed,” Lyons yelled into the phone.
Kelly Bennie didn’t believe her son. She couldn’t and wouldn’t. Lyons hadn’t even made it to the hospital yet, she reassured him, it was far too early to jump to a diagnosis of that magnitude.
Lyons wouldn’t hear it. He reiterated what he believed had to be true. He was paralyzed.
The rest of the trip to Baltimore is a hazy mess for Lyons, who dipped in and out of consciousness as he was administered drugs to combat his pain. Bennie and Lyons’ step-dad, meanwhile, rushed to Baltimore from their home in Camp Hill to meet their son.
After waiting nearly a day for his turn to undergo surgery, Lyons went under the knife. More than five hours later, the doctor emerged. Lyons had a burst fracture in his T5 and T6 vertebrae, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down.
“They had to come out and tell us that he had a less than one percent chance of ever walking again,” Bennie said.
Within the first month after Lyons’ injury, Bennie was put in touch with a family who had a son that’d been paralyzed two years earlier. But instead of providing support, the mother on the end of the phone cast doubts.
Did he work, Bennie asked. No. Well, could he drive? Nope. So what did he do, Bennie asked.
“She literally told me he sits in the garage every day and smokes cigarettes,” Bennie said.
Nearly three years later, the former Cumberland Valley lacrosse captain is nothing like that man. Lyons, now 26, is preparing to move from his apartment in San Diego to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs where he’s been selected to train for a spot handcycling at the Paralympics in Tokyo in 2020.
Lyons goes on a training ride with his handcycle. (Photo courtesy of Brandon Lyons)
A day doesn’t go by when Lyons doesn’t think back to that fateful Memorial Day weekend trip to Ocean City, Maryland, in 2014. So much was going right for the recent Penn State graduate working for Ernst & Young in Washington D.C.
But the trip to the eastern shore to celebrate a friend’s birthday all went wrong when Lyons ventured out onto a pier. He saw boats floating nearby and with the way the sun was reflecting off the water about 10 feet below him, he couldn’t see the bottom.
So Lyons plunged head-first into the ocean. Moments later, he was floating on the surface, the lower-half of his body completely numb. There was no pain, but something was clearly wrong. He called up to his friends still standing on the pier.
“I looked up at them and I said I couldn’t stand. I need you to come in. I was paralyzed,” Lyons said. “And they had thought it was kind of a joke, kind of fooling around. And quickly, I said, ‘This is serious. I can’t move.’”
Soon, his friends hopped into the water and pulled him around the pier to the shore where they called 911. His trip to the University of Maryland Medical Center was anything but straightforward.
After riding in an ambulance to a large enough parking lot for a LifeLine helicopter to land, he departed toward Baltimore. There was a problem, though. The helicopter didn’t have enough gas to make it to the city, forcing them to stop off at a small hospital in Salisbury, Maryland, where they checked his vitals and gassed up.
Somewhere along the way, the nurse in the helicopter had phoned his mom’s home in Camp Hill. It rang once. No answer. The nurse called a second time. Still nothing.
On the third attempt, Bennie picked up the number she’d been ignoring, figuring it was an annoying sales call. Instead, the voice on the other end was delivering the phone call every parent fears.
“That’s something that always happens to somebody else, something so tragic is always someone else’s family and you hear their stories,” Bennie said. “It’s never your own. And he’s my only son, he’s my only child. You never expect that.”
But if there was anyone capable of overcoming such a life-altering event, it was Lyons.
Tim Maffett, a friend since middle school who was on the trip and roomed with him in Washington D.C., said that sentiment was shared among friends and family alike in the days after the injury.
“If anybody is going to be able to bounce back from this and find a way through it, it would be Brandon,” Maffett said. “That was said hundreds of times.”
Lyons competes at the Boston Marathon (Photo courtesy of Brandon Lyons)