Brandon Anderson: Back to Firefighting Less Than One Year After Amputation
October 2017 Issue
It was a typical August day last summer when firefighter Brandon Anderson set out on a motorcycle ride with his friend, police officer Anthony Schneider. They were headed from Fishers, Indiana, to Lake Cumberland, Kentucky, for a weekend with friends. Anderson's wife, Nesha, snapped a photo of them before they set out on the four-hour journey.
Shortly after they turned onto U.S. 421, a truck making a U-turn cut across the highway and collided with Anderson, ejecting him from his motorcycle. His bike landed on him, partially severing his right leg.
"I was at the point of trying to get out from under my bike and Anthony stopped me because he saw how badly I was bleeding, and he knew we needed to stop it," Anderson says. "He got a tourniquet that he typically carries in his patrol car but that he happened to have brought along on his bike that day."
With the help of passersby, Schneider got the bike off Anderson. An ambulance transported Anderson to a helipad and he was airlifted to the University of Louisville Hospital, Kentucky. There he was prepped for a surgery in which surgeons attempted to restore a severed artery and return blood flow to his leg and foot.
"Over the following days they tried to make repairs, knowing the damage was significant," Anderson says. "My recovery would be very long, with a lot of unknowns."
After battling a month-long infection, a significant amount of tissue on his leg had been destroyed.
"I came to terms with the fact that, even if they could save my leg, I would essentially have a dead limb hanging there," Anderson says.
Conversations with his wife, people with amputations, and a prosthetist followed over the next days, which helped Anderson make the decision that would impact the rest of his life. He and his family leaned heavily on their faith, and Anderson says prayer was a huge part of their decision-making
process. He saw the first glimmer of hope when talking to a fellow firefighter with a transtibial amputation.
"My family and I determined that while amputation would be difficult, choosing to keep the leg would likely mean a miserable life, and there would be no chance of returning to firefighting," Anderson says. For him, giving up firefighting was never an option. He made the decision to have the transfemoral amputation, and the surgery took place September 7, 2016.
"After surgery, I immediately focused on getting healthy, getting fitted with a prosthesis, and moving forward," Anderson says.
And moving forward is exactly what he's done. This comes as no surprise to his family, friends, and fellow firefighters. Within two weeks of the amputation, he met with Patrick Conley, CPO/L, at Kenney Orthopedics Prosthetics & Orthotics, Louisville, Kentucky. Early prosthetic involvement has been integral to Anderson's fast recovery. Two months after his amputation, he took his first steps on his prosthesis. On June 26, Anderson took his first shift at the firehouse.
"From day one he was set on returning to full active duty," Conley says.
That's especially challenging considering that the fire department requires firefighters on medical leave to return to duty within one year.
That timeframe is feasible with a regular injury, but for someone with an amputation, a year is not much time for the amputation wound to completely heal, which is necessary before a person can be fitted for a prosthesis, and to become proficient with the prosthesis. There was no protocol, Conley says, for someone with such a severe injury wanting to come back to full active duty. Anderson would have to get through physical therapy and complete physical tests before being cleared to return.
"He wasn't going to wait—he was adamant about getting back," Conley says.
Meeting the Challenges
Besides the abbreviated timeline, there were other unique challenges that had to be met to equip Anderson to thrive with his prosthesis at work and at home. His role with the Fishers Fire Department includes being part of a recovery team for confined space, trench, and ropes rescues. He is also on the department's scuba rescue team.
"I needed to design something for him that was quick to put on and would also give him a good hold around his residual limb," Conley says. "The way his socket holds on to his leg is [with] a gel liner with suction suspension that eliminates all air within the socket, creating a vacuum around the limb."
In addition to his custom-made socket, Anderson's solution consists of an Ottobock X3 microprocessor knee and an Össur Pro-Flex Pivot foot. The socket features a RevoFit system, which allows Anderson to adjust the tightness of the socket around his limb. That allows the limb to be looser if he is at the firehouse, and tighter when he goes on a call. The knee had to be waterproof, dustproof, and rugged to meet the demands of a firefighter. The X3 meets those requirements, Conley says.
Being a firefighter also requires quickly getting in and out of gear—specifically, a boot.
"When he gets a call, he has to transfer into his fire suit and with a prosthetic foot, he doesn't have active control of the ankle so that makes it difficult to fit into a boot with an ankle locked at 90 degrees," Conley explains. "We looked at modifying the boot or leaving a foot zipped into a boot, but ultimately determined that would not pass code."
Anderson would not likely be able to switch between different prosthetic feet in the two minutes allotted to get out the door once a call comes in. Ultimately, Conley developed a solution by designing two separate knee units, two sockets, and two foot units so Anderson can switch quickly between his regular-use prosthesis to the secondary knee and foot that sit ready in his fire suit and boot. The socket and knee are the same for both, but when wearing the fire boot, Anderson uses a lighter-weight Össur Pro-Flex LP. A Ferrier Coupler component allows him to switch knee/foot combinations.
"The socket is always connected to his leg. The knee disconnects in seconds and then he steps onto another knee unit and a foot," Conley says.
Anderson says the relationship with Conley has been paramount to his recovery. "He has taken huge ownership of my well-being," Anderson says. "It's life changing when someone not only does the job they have to do, but also has a love for it and a drive to help people achieve a quality of life and meet their goals."
When he reflects, Anderson says every person that has been involved from the moment of the accident has made a difference—not only to him surviving the accident, but returning to the firehouse. From Schneider's quick action immediately following the accident, to the others who stopped, the EMTs, and the physicians and surgeons at the hospital, and his fellow firefighters, everyone played a role in his recovery.
A First in Firefighting
Anderson is the first firefighter to return to active duty after a transfemoral amputation. One of Fisher Fire Department's newest recruits has a transtibial amputation, Anderson says.
"It's not in my DNA to give up, and that was one of the challenges I met with coming back with the administration and the things they had to sign off on—it was something new for them," Anderson says. "We had to educate them along the way, and I said from the get-go that we were going to make a decision not based on the fact that no one had come back from this type of injury and done this before, but based on what I could do."
That message was certainly received, and Anderson says no one has tried to talk him out of returning to duty. Checks and balances have reassured the fire department, and Anderson himself.
"We have to complete agility courses once a year and the first hurdle was getting them to approve me to do that course and show them that I can complete these tasks safely without putting anyone in harm's way—and that was a concern of my own," he says. "I made up my mind that if I can't do it safely, then I don't need to be here. People alongside me have been supportive, helped me train and stood back and watched me. That brotherhood aspect of this journey has been tremendous—and it's not something you get in every profession."
Anderson says that talking to people dealing with new limb loss has been one of his biggest goals and contributors to getting healthy. He wanted to pay forward the type of outreach he received, which he believes was critical to helping him make the right decision, and to his recovery and overall outlook.
"To see him go from returning to a fire truck in less than a year is unbelievable, and it's just a testament to the kind of person he is," Conley says. "It's been incredible."
Tara McMeekin is a writer and editor based in Parker, Colorado.