FISHERS, Ind. — As his motorcycle careened out of control on a southern Indiana highway, Brandon Anderson said a silent prayer and prepared for the worst.
The lieutenant with the Fishers Fire Department and a high school buddy were on their way to Lake Cumberland in Kentucky on a summer day in 2016 when a truck in the right lane of U.S. 421 veered into the left lane, cutting off Anderson and sending him hurtling onto the pavement. His bike came down on top of him, crushing his right leg.
He could have bled to death on that road, but he reacted swiftly. He took off his belt with the intention of making a tourniquet. Meanwhile, his friend, an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officer, grabbed a small trauma kit from his motorcycle, and the two went to work to control the bleeding.
Anderson was flown to the nearest Level 1 trauma center — University of Louisville Hospital, where he remained for a month. But it was just the beginning of an excruciating struggle back to the man, the father and the firefighter he wanted to be.
A year later, the 41-year-old Shelby County resident is back at work at Fishers Fire Station No. 93. He’s not the same guy. But the artificial limb he wears in place of his right leg is only part of the reason.
“We’ve all been put on paths in our lives,” said the husband and father of two. “It’s up to us to handle them, to make choices along those paths.”
His first choice was to return to the job and the life that he loved. So here he sits, the only firefighter in the area, perhaps the country, with an amputation above the knee who has been re-certified to perform all the necessary duties required of a member of a career fire department. That’s a big deal. It would not have happened without grit, humility and the support of what he calls the “brotherhood of the fire service.” He’s been buoyed by stories of firefighters, other emergency personnel and veterans from around the country who’ve suffered injuries and gone on to re-chart their course through life.
“You can’t go into that dark hole alone and come out,” he said. “You’ve got to open up and reach out and accept the help that’s there for you.”
After accepting the fact that his mangled leg would be of no use to him, he agreed to amputation surgery with the expectation that a prosthetic limb could be designed to allow him to go back to work — and that didn’t mean sitting at a desk.
“I wasn’t going to give up without trying to come back. I knew that if I was provided the proper equipment, I would find a way to make it work, as long as I had something more than a stick and a door hinge that could get me there.”
Kenney Orthopedics in Indianapolis created for him not one but two state-of-the-art prosthetics with hydraulic knees. His second leg is attached to a fire boot that he can slip on quickly when a call requires full bunker gear.
Anderson let go of his right leg Sept. 7, 2016, nearly a month after the accident. He would go home to heal, then be fitted with a series of “loaner legs” until his high-performance artificial limbs were ready.
He walked for the first time Nov. 7 and returned to light duty at the fire station in January, but that wasn’t his end goal.
He continued rehab, gaining strength and learning how to use his new leg. He compared himself to a toddler standing up to walk for the first time. Eventually, he had to retrain his muscle memory so that when stepping into or out of the firetruck or climbing a ladder he would lead with his left foot.
In June, doctors released him to complete the firefighters’ physical agility test, mandated every year to ensure that department personnel can perform their job functions.
The test, performed in full gear that can weigh up to 85 pounds, includes carrying ladders, dragging hoses up and down stairs, swinging a sledgehammer and pulling a dummy body. No modifications were made for Anderson. It’s a pass or fail test.
Anderson credits his family (including wife, Nesha), his faith and fellow firefighters for getting him to this point.
“Nothing’s ever easy. If we take that easy road, that is the road of misery, and If I chose that road, it was gonna make everyone around me miserable.”
So for him, it was “pick up the pieces, tackle one obstacle at a time and move on to the next one.”
“That’s how we try to live our life. That’s how I want my boys (ages 13 and 16) to live their lives,” he said, tears rolling down his face.
None of this surprises John Mehling, public information officer and educator for the Fishers Fire & Emergency Services.
“Brandon is amazing. I don’t know how many people can go through circumstances like this and have that same kind of attitude,” Mehling said as he watched Anderson hop off the firetruck after returning from a medical run.
With the 15-year Fishers department veteran, he said, “It’s always been, ‘I can until I can’t.’ He’s the guy you go to whether it’s about firefighting or farming or mechanics; the guy can do just about anything. He makes you better. We’re just really proud of him.”
Anderson may appreciate that sentiment, but more than anything, he’s focused on being a good firefighter at work and a good husband and father at home.
“When I came back, I’d be lying if I didn’t say there was some nervousness,” he said, “almost like being a probie again and being the rookie on the truck.”
But he has proved himself in training and in responding to calls again and again, from the fatal plane crash next to the Fisher fire station at the end of August to a motorcycle accident not long after his return to duty.
“At the end of the day, he’s not a lieutenant with a prosthetic leg, he’s a lieutenant. End of story,” Mehling said. “He just has a little more style than the rest of us.”
Like his peers, Anderson works 24 hours on and 48 hours off at the firehouse. At home, he has returned to farming, hunting and fishing with his boys. One thing he has given up is his motorcycle. “I’m over it,” he said.
He confesses to having a love-hate relationship with his new leg. “There’s days I would like to take it off and throw it,” he said. “Do I want to get up every morning and put this on? No, but given the circumstances, that’s what’s available to allow me physically to live a full life.”
Source: The Indianapolis Star, http://indy.st/2k4owmU
Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com
This is an AP-Indiana Exchange story offered by The Indianapolis Star.