Ray O’Donnell: Army Major Thrives With Advanced Brace Solution
November 2019 Issue
Army Maj. Raymond W. O'Donnell is the embodiment of the phrase, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." In August 2007, he was serving in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, as an embedded advisor to the Afghan National Police, when the driver of the Humvee he was riding in lost control of the vehicle.
When the Humvee rolled, O'Donnell was ejected and thrown 80 feet. The accident left him with severe poly-trauma injuries, including damage to his head and spinal cord, a crushed pelvis, and a dislocated left hip and right wrist.
O'Donnell was medevac'd to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington DC, where he spent time as an inpatient. He also spent time at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
"I was a 27-year-old Army infantry officer and former collegiate athlete," he says. "After the accident, I was essentially broken from head to toe."
Among the injuries, O'Donnell suffered a lower lumbosacral plexopathy, which paralyzed his lower left leg. For the first month after the accident, O'Donnell could move only his left arm and nothing else.
"The first couple of weeks in a hospital you don't even know what's going on," O'Donnell says. "Once your head starts to clear and you understand what's going on, you start asking questions about your future."
His progress felt incredibly slow as he moved from being bedridden, to an electric wheelchair, and eventually to a regular wheelchair.
"I wondered if I was going to be bound to a wheelchair for the rest of my life, and how I was going to get around," he says.
After receiving multiple surgeries at Walter Reed and Brooke Army hospitals, O'Donnell was sent to the Poly-Trauma Center at James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital in Tampa, Florida, where he went through intensive rehab, including physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy. By the end of each day, he was exhausted.
After an eight-month stint as an inpatient between Walter Reed, Brooke Army, and the Tampa VA, he was finally discharged and sent back to San Antonio to pursue outpatient rehab at the Center for the Intrepid (CFI). O'Donnell had walked out of the Tampa VA with a cane and a basic AFO.
"I got phenomenal care at the VA facilities, but when they gave me my AFO I remember thinking, ‘Are you kidding me?' because it looked like something straight out of 1970," he says. "That was very discouraging and depressing."
That AFO did help him graduate from a walker to a crutch, and eventually a cane, but from the moment he received it, O'Donnell knew there had to be something better.
While still trying to come to terms with his new physical limitations, O'Donnell saw people with amputations thriving at the CFI.
"My first week on the main floor I see these amputees running and climbing and doing these amazing things," he says. "And I am watching them thinking, ‘Look at what these guys can do with these incredible prosthetic legs,' and wishing I could do that."
O'Donnell was also dealing with what is now known as complex regional pain syndrome, which caused his leg to be extremely sensitive and to feel cold most of the time. He still deals with that pain.
"It was summer of 2008 in the Texas heat, and yet my paralyzed leg was freezing all the time," he says. "And I remember watching these guys doing all these amazing things without a leg and just feeling like I was stuck on the sidelines."
Naturally the frustration he felt at his own stalled progress led O'Donnell to question whether he should have his own leg amputated.
O'Donnell spoke to his physicians about amputation, but because he was so compromised in his core region, with plates and screws throughout his hip and pelvis, he was advised that a prosthesis would be difficult to use and that amputation should be a last resort.
O'Donnell discussed it with his wife and family as well and they all agreed that amputation wasn't the best option.
"I still wasn't happy with the progress I was making though," he says. "In Tampa at the VA hospital, I had been making progress, but at this point I felt weak, I was in pain, I was afraid, and I had no confidence."
Searching for a Solution
Wanting to see about getting an improved AFO, O'Donnell approached the staff at CFI and Brooke Army Hospital.
"I wanted more stability, and not only to walk—I wanted to be able to run," he says.
He was referred to Kevin Matthews, CO, a brace specialist at Advanced Orthopedic Designs in San Antonio.
"I met with him and told him whatever he could do that would be better than what I was wearing would be a godsend," O'Donnell says. "When you don't have a car, it can be a Pinto; it doesn't need to be a Mercedes."
When O'Donnell returned a week later, Matthews had made him a brace with the design and color scheme of the American flag.
"I tried his brace on and immediately noticed a difference. It was taller and there was a lever on the patella, and right off the bat this brace felt better than what I'd come in there with," O'Donnell says. "For months I'd felt unstable on my brace and I started using this and progressed to the point where I could finally walk without a cane."
Matthews said that the brace was just his own version of something someone else was developing, and if O'Donnell wanted "the real deal," he needed to go see Marmaduke Loke, CPO, lead clinician at Dynamic Bracing Solutions in San Diego. Matthews had based the brace on concepts he learned firsthand from Loke.
At the same time, O'Donnell was nearing the end of his six months of rehab and getting ready to return home to Hawaii to complete more outpatient rehab there and to reintegrate into Army life.
"I was eager to get back to service, but I first had to go through an Army medical board," O'Donnell says.
If a soldier's physical capabilities change, he or she is required to undergo a comprehensive medical evaluation. The process at the time, in 2008, was lengthy and extensive. O'Donnell was assigned to Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii in a holding area for wounded, injured, and ill soldiers waiting to either return to duty or transition out of the Army.
"During this time, I kept telling everyone who would listen about Marmaduke Loke and his miracle brace that would allow me to run and jump again—so I kept getting to the next person in the food chain, until I couldn't go any higher."
Eventually, O'Donnell escalated his case to the commanding general of Tripler Army Medical Center, Brig. Gen. Steve Jones. Jones brought in his deputy commander, Navy Capt. David Lane. O'Donnell credits Jones and Lane with making his visit to San Diego to see Loke possible.
"Less than two weeks after I met with General Jones, I was on a plane to meet Marmaduke and his colleague, Doug Van Atta [CPO]," he says. Loke provided O'Donnell with a dynamic-response AFO with triplanar management.
"Your foot has 26 bones and each moves and articulates in three dimensions at the same time," Loke says.
He says his solution is different than other braces because it moves all of those bones to realign them all the way up the shin, knee, and then the hip.
"We are all governed by the same laws of physics, so this is similar to a prosthesis, and the main thing is realigning in three dimensions and then having something that can withstand speed and motion."
Loke says from the moment he met O'Donnell it was evident that he wanted to get back into Army service as soon as possible.
"I am really happy our solution was able to help him do that."
A New Coat of Armor
When O'Donnell put on his brace for the first time, he says it was an entirely different experience than his previous AFOs.
"It was almost like putting on a coat of armor," he recalls. "They told me I would have to be patient and put in the work to get the most benefit out of this device—and I did."
He likens the adjustment period to breaking in a new pair of Army boots. He was only able to wear the brace for about an hour a day initially, but quickly developed the ability to use it properly.
"Within two weeks it felt like an extension of me," O'Donnell says. "I felt stability and security that translated to confidence. And I can't tell you what that means to a young man."
By April 2009, O'Donnell was able to run with his brace on. He made another appointment with Jones to show him what the brace had done for him.
"There is a balcony at Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii that overlooks the Pacific Ocean, and I went in to meet with General Jones and Captain Lane," he says. "I thanked them, and I walked over to that balcony and started running, and General Jones was visibly moved."
Due in large part to Loke's brace, O'Donnell has been able to stay on active duty as an Army officer and to return to combat in Iraq in 2010-2011. He is now a strategic intelligence officer completing training in Washington DC.
"I am so thankful for Marmaduke and that his technology is helping service members," O'Donnell says. "It's because of his methods that others like me have found the solutions they need."
O'Donnell has received several decorations from the Army, including the Bronze Star with two Oak Leaf Clusters, Afghan Campaign Medal, Iraq Campaign Medal, Combat Infantryman Badge, Parachutist Badge, and the Navy SCUBA Badge.
He is the first wounded warrior to return to active duty with a paralyzed leg. He averages ten million steps a year and has used the same AFO from Dynamic Bracing Solutions for ten years without any foot or ankle deformities.
O'Donnell enjoys competing in triathlons and participating in water sports and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He's won two individual gold medals in swimming, representing the U.S. Army at the 2014 Warrior Games. He and his wife, Kellie, have two daughters.
Tara McMeekin is a writer and editor based in Parker, Colorado.