Quiet Warrior: Never give up: First above-the-knee amputee firefighter recalls road to recovery, return to department
Lt. Brandon Anderson, a 16-year veteran firefighter, returned to his department as a fully qualified firefighter just 10 months after a motorcycle crash
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By Sarah Calams for FireRescue1 BrandFocus
In August 2016, Lt. Brandon Anderson, a 16-year veteran with the Fishers Fire Department in Indiana, had a day off from work and went for a motorcycle ride to spend a weekend at the lake.
About an hour and a half away from his destination, a driver in the lane next to Anderson cut over without warning. Anderson was thrown off his motorcycle and onto the pavement. After skidding along the road, his motorcycle landed on top of him and crushed his right leg.
In an instant, life as he knew it had changed forever.
'You never know what the day is going to bring'
Anderson chose a firefighting career because of his desire to help people.
Over the years, he has worked in special operations for the department's water rescue team, as well as confined space and collapsed rescue. He's currently a lieutenant on an engine company and says he enjoys helping someone in their time of need.
"We don't get the call because people want to hang out with us," he said. "We get the call because someone is having a bad day. I want to be able to make a positive impact."
The challenge of the unknown, he said, is another aspect that drew him to the profession.
"Every day is different. You never know what the day is going to bring,” Anderson said. “As a firefighter, you're able to be resourceful and care for a patient that needs your assistance that day."
Anderson wasn't prepared to be on the other side of the fence – having someone help him in his time of need. However, in true firefighter fashion, he immediately started thinking of the steps involved to fix the predicament he was in.
"My first responder instinct kicked in, and that's when I went straight to trying to stop the bleeding," he said. "But even in that moment, I'm thinking of my life as I know it, my livelihood and my day-to-day just being ripped from me in the blink of an eye due to someone else."
A friend who was riding with him – a police officer in Indianapolis – knew Anderson’s leg was in bad shape. After the bike was moved out of the way, Anderson began untying his belt to use it as a tourniquet.
"He [the officer] told me to stop, and he ran back to his bike. It just so happened that that day, before he left home, he grabbed a small trauma kit that he keeps in his patrol car and it had a field tourniquet in it," Anderson said.
Together, they applied the tourniquet and stopped the bleeding. By that time, other first responders and paramedics had arrived on scene. They transported Anderson a few hundred yards in an ambulance over to a helicopter, which transported him to the University of Louisville Hospital – a Level I trauma center.
That started a month-long stay in the hospital, initially trying to stabilize Anderson and begin working through the process of trying to repair his leg.
The next step in his journey was not an easy one.
Infection and damage to the leg
Initially, doctors and surgeons tried to save Anderson's leg. The biggest concern was the fact that he had suffered a severed artery in the leg, and doctors were unsure if they would be able to restore blood flow.
"I was in surgery most of the day, with surgeons trying to restore blood flow and put bones together that were broken and damaged,” he said. “They worked really hard, and I wanted to save the leg – I felt like I could make it work."
The doctors knew before Anderson did that the leg wasn't going to be salvageable.
"Within the first week or two, I was not thinking of amputation," he said. "I had the mindset of, ‘We're going to put this back together, we're going to fix it, I'm going to rehab it and do whatever it takes physically to make this work in whatever the time frame may be.’"
Three and a half weeks into his hospital stay, it started setting in that amputation may be the best choice, given the circumstance.
"I was going into surgery nearly every other day because the infection was eating away at more tissue and more muscle,” he said. “The infection was actually damaging pieces that they had already fixed."
That's when Anderson's mindset began to change – he knew that he needed to go a different route in order to have a chance at healing.
"I reached out to some prosthetic professionals and other amputees so I could talk to someone who had been there and done that,” he said. “It helped get me in that mindset that this wasn't the end. Amputation isn't the end of anything – it's the start of something new."
For the first time, he realized that he had a choice and could still win the fight.
"I decided that I was going to have a much more productive life if I went with an amputation and was able to get a prosthetic that could fit my knee and the activity of my lifestyle,” Anderson said. “After speaking with the prosthetic professionals, they felt they could build me a leg that could get me back to everything I wanted to do – including my job."
The healing process
Anderson's leg was amputated eight months after his motorcycle accident.
"In that two-month period of being home and waiting for the amputation to heal so I could wear a prosthetic and be fitted, that was a rehab period even though I didn't have a leg,” he said. “It was coming home, adapting to my new life without a limb and changing everything I do on a daily basis."
Coming home, he says, was the first step of his healing process:
"I had to get out of the hospital, leave that infection that was attacking my body there and be done with it – be home and healthy for myself and my family."
Now, a year and a half out from amputation, Anderson says everything he has endured along the way has been a learning process from day one.
"I had to learn to trust what was there and learn to allow that to become a part of me – from learning to walk and looking down with my own eyes where that foot was stepping every time and making sure it was in the right place,” he said. “I had to learn to trust that it was going to hold me up and move me forward."
Eventually, he was fitted for a prosthetic after doing extensive research and talking to professionals about his best option.
"They knew which leg I was going to need to do my activity level on a daily basis," he said.
Along the way, there have been many challenges and obstacles to overcome in order for Anderson to return as a fully qualified above-the-knee amputee firefighter.
Getting back to the fire service
In general, getting back to his everyday life was a challenge. As far as getting back to the fire service, that's a whole other story.
"When you think of a person with a prosthetic, you don't think of them being a firefighter or being in a position that's active or demanding," Anderson said. "Naturally, people would assume, 'OK, what are you going to do now? Your career is over.'"
Quitting without even trying wasn't an option for Anderson. However, as he started researching ways to return as an above-the-knee amputee firefighter, he quickly learned that no one else had done it before.
"I had to educate myself as to what I needed to do. I had to learn on my own," he said. "The city and the department had never dealt with this. It was about everyone learning and making sure that I could meet the demands of what the department's requirements were."
From there, Anderson started therapy and training to make sure he could do all the functions and requirements that a firefighter's job entails.
"I wanted to continue doing the job that I started doing 16 years ago,” he said. “My mentality is to not just give up and walk away from something. It's about working hard, doing better all the time and not being satisfied with the status quo."
Anderson wasn't going to give up and not try to return as a fully qualified above-the-knee amputee firefighter just because it hadn't been done before. There were going to be hurdles, but he was ready to solve one problem – or hurdle – and move onto the next.
"I wasn't going to give up because something wasn't working right,” he said. “If something didn't work, it was about adapting and overcoming an obstacle to move onto the next."
Thankfully, he wasn't alone in his fight to return to his department. His colleagues at the department worked out and trained alongside him every step of the way.
"It was great help training with them. If I struggled with something, it was another set of eyes with them looking at it also,” he said. “They would be able to say, 'Hey, that doesn't look comfortable,” or ‘That doesn't look like you can do it that way – how about we try it this way?'"
From the beginning, it was about learning new ways of doing the things he had done on autopilot before the accident.
"You hear the term 'brotherhood' and 'sisterhood' all the time, but you don't understand it until you live it,” he said. “Being able to have that support from those individuals – not only to push me along the way, but to also take care of my family in a time where everything was out of sorts – the help we received was just phenomenal."
One thing was for sure – Anderson knew there had to be a reason this road was put in front of him.
Helping others along a new path
Since returning as a fully qualified above-the-knee amputee firefighter, Anderson has made it his mission to help other amputees achieve a similar goal.
"If there's someone else in a similar situation, then that's the reason I share my story,” he said. “If people can take away one piece from my story and have it help them, then it's been worth it. It's not going to be an easy road – not many people travel this road."
He reminds other amputees that amputation and moving into a prosthetic is not the end – it's the start of something new.
"It's the start of moving forward with your life in a little bit of a different way,” he said. “You can't give up because of a change in your physical makeup – there are ways to rehab and work to get back to what you want to do."
Anderson is an inspiration to many people, but one in particular at his very own department. Thomas Crafton, a now-probationary firefighter with the Fishers Fire Department, has a partial amputation and never dreamed of becoming a firefighter until he heard Anderson's story.
"Brandon is literally changing lives – giving people opportunities that they themselves never believed they had before," said John Mehling, Fishers Fire captain and public information officer. "One of my favorite quotes from Brandon is, 'Don't tell me I can't do something until I can't do it.'"
There's always a way, Mehling said, and Anderson kept searching until he found it.
"When he was going through all of this, there were a lot of doubts,” said Mehling. “But everyone said if anyone could do it, then it would be Brandon. He's just that kind of guy – and he was that kind of guy before this happened."
Anderson's journey isn't finished yet. It's a continuous learning process day to day, and he knows there will be moments when he has to back up and figure out what works best for him.
"It's OK to have a bad day,” he said. “It's nice to be able to reach out to other amputees – to be able to call them and vent if I need to. Having someone to help is what keeps me going."