Midpeninsula Post

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Brandon Louie poses for a photo after the CCS Last Chance Invite in April 2022. (Tomoki Chien)

How a Los Altos junior pieced his life together after an accident turned him paraplegic — and how he’s now excelling on the track team.

It’s a balmy day on Waikiki Beach, and Brandon Louie’s just come back to shore. Some 15 minutes earlier, he felt a funny pop in his back while surfing — almost as if he tried to lift a box that was too heavy — and he’s called it quits because of the pain. Louie, then a rising junior at Los Altos High School, sets his board down on the famous white sand beach, and lies in the warmth of the midday July sun. A couple minutes later, he tries to move — but he can’t feel his legs. He’s stuck.

Panic might be an apt response, but Louie’s a level guy. He doesn’t have a phone on him and he’s surrounded by strangers (his dad, brother and family friends are still out on the water) though at the moment, he’s more shocked than worried. A couple minutes pass before he says anything, when his friend’s mom happens to check in on him. “I know this is gonna sound crazy,” Louie tells her, “but I can’t move my legs.” She calls an ambulance.

Chapter I

Surfer’s myelopathy is a rare spinal cord injury often found in young novice surfers, caused by a hyperextension of the back that constricts blood vessels around the spine and can cause paralysis — though it’s not necessarily permanent. At least that’s what the doctors at the Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu told Louie a few hours after being rushed to the hospital, though the “permanent” status has since become apparent as we talk over coffee nine months later at the handicap table at Peet’s.

“I think there was definitely hope,” Louie said of recovery, “probably more on my parents’ side than mine. I think once I heard the diagnosis and learned how rare the condition was, I kind of just accepted it, and I think that was necessary for my sanity — my ability to keep moving on. I just kind of took it as it was, and anything I gained back I figured I’d just be grateful for.”

“Like with any sort of family tragedy, nobody expects it. It’s so out of left field,” Louie’s mother, Eunice, told me over the phone. Mrs. Louie, a former television producer, said her career in journalism might’ve made it easier for her to wrap her head around the accident; she’d seen random tragedies afflict perfectly normal people and families. Not that that necessarily made anything less devastating. For the first two weeks, Louie stayed in the intensive care unit, first going on blood-pressure-raising medication to try to force life back to the spine, then restabilizing after the failed treatment. Louie mourned the loss of things like running cross country and playing soccer, along with his broader independence. “I didn’t want to become a burden,” Louie said. “In the first few weeks before I learned any skills, I had to have everything done for me, like getting dressed and all that. I didn’t want that to be my life. I didn’t want my parents to be weighed down by me.” His parents, who took turns staying with him at the hospital, reassured him that he was loved and valued just the same. But by the end of his stay at the Queen’s Center, Louie’s sadness gave way to frustration as all the treatments the doctors tried hit dead ends. 

“Nothing was really changing in my condition, and I felt like maybe it wasn’t important for me to be in the hospital anymore,” Louie told me in his characteristic analytical cadence. “But they wouldn’t discharge me because they still had different things they thought were keeping me back. Which was definitely true, but at the time it felt like I was just being held there.” It would be another two weeks before Louie was discharged from the Queen’s Center and transferred to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, a facility that specializes in treatment and rehabilitation for spinal cord injuries. When I asked Mrs. Louie about the flight from Honolulu to Atlanta, she gave a big sigh before describing a long and complex air medevac — not to even mention the insurance. But once Louie finally did get to Shepherd, his time in the hospital was no longer about curing his paralysis, and instead about learning the skills he’d need to get on with his life. He was put in a program at Shepherd specifically for adolescents with spinal cord injuries.

“When I was in the hospital initially, I was probably the youngest patient by 10 to 15 years,” Louie said. “But once you’re in an environment where you have people who are your same age, it felt almost like a summer camp.” Louie found joy in conversing and trading stories with patients around his age, all of whom shared similar injuries stemming from different accidents. Later on, they’d share coping strategies with each other — almost like a “little support group,” he said. 

For the bulk of their time at Shepherd, Louie and fellow patients practiced the skills they’d need to reacclimate to the world during real-world group outings: things like getting in and out of bed, using public restrooms, getting into cars — and doing wheelies over bumps on sidewalks. Relearning those basic skills was frustrating. “More infuriating than anything else to me was the inability to take care of myself, which is something that I think most people take for granted,” Louie said. “The concept of that being taken away from me was pretty frightening and frustrating.” That desire to reclaim his freedom was what drove him through most of his recovery. (Except “freedom” might be a relative term, given the fact that COVID restrictions meant he and Mrs. Louie had to stay in the same hospital room together. “I’m sure it was a bit traumatic for him,” Mrs. Louie said.)

Beyond learning to live in the same room with his mom 24/7, the program at Shepherd taught him to see the world in new practical terms. “You barely notice these handicap signs when you’re able-bodied,” he says, pointing to the handicap icon on the table we’re sitting at. “Once you get in a wheelchair, it’s like you’re following the signs everywhere you go.” After a month of inpatient care, during which his mom stayed with him, he and his dad transitioned to another month of outpatient care in an apartment adjacent to the hospital. In outpatient care, he was officially discharged from the hospital, but went in every so often for mental health therapy and physical rehabilitation sessions. The primary goal was to ensure that he retained the skills he learned during inpatient care, and was equipped to go back to his real life.

Louie with his family on vacation in the summer of 2021, just a few weeks before the accident. (Courtesy Brandon Louie)

It’s at this point that I asked Louie if he ever dwells on the accident, which was so random that statistically, you’re actually more likely to get struck by lightning — if he ever lies in bed and thinks, “Shit, I wish I didn’t go surfing that day.” As a journalist, you sometimes ask questions that you kind of already know the answer to just because you need to hear your source say it; I thought this was one of those times. But his answer surprised me.

“It was just something that happened,” he said, matter-of-factly. “I didn’t think that what happened to me was preventable, so I don’t have any regrets about what I did or what happened that day.” As a journalist, you also sometimes don’t totally believe what your source is saying; but this was also not one of those times. He seemed strikingly honest and unfazed. “You can’t blame yourself, you can’t blame anybody — these things just happen,” Louie said. “It doesn’t matter how your injury happens, or what your disability is afterwards, you just have to take it as it is and move on with your life.”

Chapter II

Coming home was hard. Louie’s family had to install a ramp to the front door (he couldn’t get up the steps); replace the bathroom door with a curtain (he couldn’t fit through the doorframe); put up a temporary shower in his room (he couldn’t get into the one in his bathroom); and reorganize the layout of his room (he couldn’t move around in it with his wheelchair). He was particularly bummed about the last one, seeing as he had just gotten his own room — finally free from sharing one with his little brother — and had spent a lot of time designing the original layout himself.

And that was just in his own house; the rest of the world was just sort of weird. When he first got out of the hospital, he felt like everybody was being a little too nice. “Everybody’s really eager to accommodate,” Louie said. “When you go to restaurants, all the waiters come over and ask you which table you want, or what you need them to do to make it more accessible. And it’s a little strange because I’m not used to getting all that attention; as an able-bodied person you just kind of come in and you’re a normal customer.”

Louie said he found that attention particularly “shocking” when he went back to restaurants he’d been going to all his life. He’s since gotten over that. People are just trying to help and are doing the best they can, he realized. I asked him if he ever wishes strangers like restaurant servers treated him a little more normally, or were maybe just a little less nice. “They’re cool doing their job,” Louie said. “Whatever works for them works for me.” Classic.

At that point — October 2021, the middle of the fall semester of his junior year — Louie was enrolled in the school district’s “Option B,” a self-paced online learning program on a platform called EdGenuity for students who, for whatever reason, would prefer self-guided learning to a traditional classroom setting. While he was at Shepherd, the hospital offered a teacher three times a week that helped him through his schoolwork, but he was still playing big-time catch up.

For two or three weeks when he first got back home, all his time was spent watching the little percentage bar on EdGenuity slowly climb to 100%. He rarely got to see friends. “That was brutal,” he said. “That was just a very lonely time in my life and I think that’s why I would associate it with probably one of the most negative times I’ve had since I got injured.” Louie counted down the days until the new year — and new semester — when he could come back to campus and see his friends every day.

Especially with its newly constructed buildings, Louie found the Los Altos High campus to be handicap accessible, though it took a bit of time to get used to some of the little things. “When I’m sitting idly in my chair, sometimes I’ll start rolling down a hill and I’m like, ‘Oh I didn’t know there was a slope there,’” he said. “And there’s a little pothole next to the track that I didn’t know about either. I figured that out the hard way.”

Transitioning back into normal life, Louie’s run into a number of tricky situations that he’s dealt with in good humor; he told me about going to a party at his friend’s house that has a lot of stairs, and how three or four of his buddies had to lift him up and carry him around everywhere. Those are some buddies you’ve gotta trust. Sometimes, though, those funny moments can’t distract from the reality of living in a wheelchair. It’s harder for him to do things like meet people at local cafes for interviews, for instance; he has to transfer in and out of the car, and make sure somebody can drive him there and back. 

Even simple things like cooking or wheeling around town are much harder, which can sometimes mean he does them less than he would otherwise. “There’s definitely a new mental aspect to everything that I do,” Louie said. “Not only do I have to check if it’s wheelchair accessible, I have to ask myself if it’s worth the effort of going there. … I have to just think about the logistics of everything I do a little bit more before I do it. It’s harder to be spontaneous.”

Chapter III

Simply transitioning back into normal life wasn’t enough for Louie. An avid runner and basketball and soccer player prior to the accident, Louie took it as a given that sports would continue to be a part of his life. In fact, on the very first night in the hospital, he told his mom he wanted to play wheelchair basketball (he was inspired by the Paralympics, which were on TV at the time).

At Shepherd, he’d be connected with a recreational therapist who helped him make his way through the world of wheelchair sports, and even let him test out basketball and track chairs there at the hospital. Shepherd also paired young adolescent paraplegics like himself with older peers, and his partner opened his eyes to the world of wheelchair sports — including jet skiing. “As soon as I was leaving the hospital I was already headed home with ideas in mind for what I’d be doing when I got back,” Louie said.

Louie races the Nike De La Salle cross country invitational in September 2019. (Courtesy John Park)

Back home, Louie started to work with the Challenged Athletes Foundation, a nonprofit that helps individuals with physical disabilities access the sports equipment they need. Pretty soon he was playing wheelchair basketball with the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program (with the flattering acronym “BORP”), and in fact placed 14th or 15th out of some 30 total teams at the national championships. 

“It is … kind of ridiculous how fast he adapted to a new life and a new way of being and a new culture and a new group of people and allowed himself to have success,” said Avery Dauer, one of Louie’s basketball teammates. “The first couple months we didn’t want him handling the ball because he wasn’t confident in his dribbling yet. And then he went home for two weeks, came back, and he was dribbling circles around all of us.”

Dauer, who has cerebral palsy, said it’s especially impressive that Louie’s been able to pick up his skills as a new paraplegic; it’s been a while since BORP has gotten a new athlete at the varsity level. “He’s super analytical about everything that he does,” Dauer, a junior at the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, said. “Especially on the basketball court he analyzes everything to such an extent that he’s able to replicate the same movements and he’s able to pick up strategy really well. I mean, after the game he’ll talk your ear off about things he could’ve done differently. … So it kind of shows how competitive he is and how much he cares about the moment that he’s playing in.”

“Something to remember is … we do these things [adaptive sports] for ourselves, and it’s not an inspiration practice,” Dauer said. “This is a product of love, this is a product of work. … It’s not a pity piece.”

Louie races the 200 meter at the De Anza League trials in May 2022. (Eason Dong)

Louie and I spoke the weekend after his basketball championships, and by that time his focus had turned to track and field, where he competes for Los Altos High. On the track, unlike at his wheelchair basketball team, he competes alongside his able-bodied teammates and doesn’t have a specialized coach. At first, even just getting around the track was a challenge for Louie. “It was extremely frustrating,” he said. “Track and cross country … are fun because a lot of it’s just effort. You train so you can give your best effort, and as you train whatever your best is becomes more and more advanced. Within this world of track chairs, you have to add a new factor into it. When you’re running, you don’t really think about running around the curve too much — you know, you try and hug the inside lane, do whatever you can to get an advantage — … but within track chairs it’s a struggle just to stay in the lane. So figuring out that was really frustrating. I still haven’t mastered that.”

He might not yet have mastered the art of wheelchair track, but having watched him make his way around the track for the first time some two months ago, I can personally vouch for the fact that he’s very much improved. Louie competes in the ambulatory division of the 400 meter, 200 meter and 100 meter dashes (all the sprints), as well as the shot put, using specialized chairs that he’s borrowing.

His sprinting wheelchair has two large back wheels about the size of a bicycle’s, then smaller and narrower front wheel attached to a protruding front beam. The shot put chair looks something like any old chair.

Louie’s personal records at the time of publication are a 1:22.69 400 meter (for an able-bodied comparison, about the same pace as a varsity girl might run her two mile); 40.72 200 meter; 21.52 100 meter; and a 17’ 3” shot put (the best varsity boys in Santa Clara County throw somewhere in the range of 38’ to 45’, just for context). There’s no database that ranks ambulatory track times, so it’s hard to find a more fair comparison for his events. But, at the time of writing this, Louie’s already blown the California Interscholastic Federation wheelchair division standard out of the water, and he’ll compete in the state final on May 28 (though by the time you read this, he’ll have already finished competing).

Louie said he hopes to get a customized track wheelchair before the state meet, which would be specially designed to serve his disability and body measurements (for instance, the wheels would be positioned to be in line with his hands, making it easier for him to push himself forward). “It’s these little things that actually make a pretty big difference to how fast you can go, how easy it is to turn,” he said.

Through the Challenged Athletes Foundation, Louie was able to meet a former Paralympic track athlete who gave him pointers; Louie also thanked the team’s entire coaching staff and his teammates for helping him through the sport. “Everybody accommodates me, which is really nice,” he said. “It makes me feel welcome on the track team.” Mrs. Louie also voiced appreciation for the team not just at Los Altos, but also athletes from other schools who root for Louie at meets.

Louie races in the 100 meter at the De Anza League trials in May 2022. (Eason Dong)

Louie has big goals; he wants to play wheelchair sports at the collegiate level, and possibly even compete in the Paralympics (though he modestly conceded that he’s far from the latter at the moment). He’s been talking to a number of West Coast collegiate coaches, from the University of Arizona and Eastern Washington University, among others. “I played soccer, basketball, cross country, all that stuff before — I was never intending to play at the pro or even collegiate level,” Louie said. “Now that I’m in the world of parasports … in one way you could see it as with some doors closing … you see other doors open like being able to play in college. Being able to play basketball for a good college would be a huge thing that probably wasn’t going to be available to me before this, and has now opened up to me.”

“We’re proud of him for … trying new things and adapting his life,” Mrs. Louie said.

Chapter IV

It’s a chilly afternoon in the Los Altos High School parking lot, and I’m headed over to the track coach’s minivan with Louie before a dual meet against Palo Alto High. It’s a good thing that he remembered to bring his handicap placard, he says — we’ll be able to get the good parking by the track. “I actually have a shirt at home that says, ‘I’m in it for the parking,’” he tells me. I chuckle at that. His dad shouts from across the parking lot, reminding him to bring the placard right after he says that, and Louie gives one of those little eye roll sighs. 

He opens the shotgun door and pulls himself parallel to the car seat, transferring himself in from the wheelchair no problem; he rejects my offer to spot him, but does ask me to help break down his chair and store it in the back seat. I press down on a button in the center of each wheel, and the surprisingly light pieces come off for easy storage. 

During the 15 minute car ride to the meet, he talks about his plans to start driving again. Apparently, the Department of Rehabilitation will pay the cost of putting hand controls in his car, which would allow him to press the gas and hit the brakes. To transfer in and out, he’ll just have to figure out how to break down his chair once he’s gotten into the car seat, then pile all the pieces on the passenger-side seat.

Through it all, I can’t help but be struck by the normalness of everything. His disability is clearly present — but he seems very much at peace with it; it’s just another part of his life. He’s a normal guy, who also just happens to have a not-so-normal story, and I can’t help but recall something he told me at the end of our interview a couple weeks prior. “Going to school again is normal and I’ve joined my sports teams again,” Louie had said. “It feels like I’m going about business as usual.”

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