BAXTER SPRINGS, Kan. —
It began with a list.
It is small, bright yellow, written on the back of a flier for a local fast food restaurant.
On it: 1, 3.1, 6.2, 13.1 and 26.2.
Runners will recognize those numbers: They represent the number of miles in a one-mile, 5K, 10K, half-marathon and marathon run.
Brian Smith is no longer a runner — he is paralyzed from the waist down. But he was a runner, and he has always been a determined goal setter.
So from his hospital bed at Freeman Hospital West in Joplin, Mo. — two days after a fluke accident, one day after surgery to put a titanium cage in his spine and less than 12 hours after learning he would never again walk — he asked his wife to make the list.
Jenn Smith, a real estate saleswoman and fellow goal setter, was not surprised.
“This kind of stuff has been a part of my job a long time,” she said. “If you don’t have goals written down, they don’t exist.”
The list was taped up next to his medical chart for two weeks.
It went to the Jim Thorpe Rehabilitation Center in Oklahoma City with Brian and Jenn for three weeks.
Five weeks after the accident, it went with them to their home in Baxter Springs, where Brian had grown up and they had started a family, which includes four children ranging in age from 10 to 19, a dog and a cat.
“That list is right next to the bed,” Jenn said. “That’s where it stays.”
The home has a ramp, wider doors and smoother carpets to accommodate the wheelchair that Brian, 37, now uses. It also has a three-wheel hand cycle parked in the garage. On Sunday, Brian will use it to participate in the Mother Ride Marathon from Commerce, Okla., to Joplin.
He has no doubt he’ll finish it.
“He’s that kind of a guy,” said his mother, Sherry Smith. “He’s always been a goal setter. He’s just a really good guy.”
On July 21, 2012, a Saturday, Brian and Jenn had another list on which they were focused.
“We had a list of 13 things we really wanted to get done,” Jenn recalled.
They were ordinary homeowner types of things: Spray the wasp nest; do the yardwork.
“Brian went to his parents a few blocks away to get the riding lawn mower to make the process easier,” Jenn said. “He’d done it many times before.”
While she tackled cleaning the kitchen, the phone rang. It was her mother-in-law. Brian had had an accident, she told Jenn. He was driving the mower up steel ramps to the back of his Silverado when it flipped onto him.
When Jenn arrived minutes later, she didn’t realize the extent of his injuries.
“I thought he’d pinched his back or something,” she said. “He was on the ground and said, ‘Sorry babe,’ and he remained pretty calm. We chatted in the ambulance all the way to Joplin.”
Brian, however, knew something was wrong.
“I knew my legs weren’t moving, and I couldn’t feel them,” he said. “It was pretty frightening.”
Scans revealed compression fractures of his thoracic spine at the T12 vertebra and his lumbar spine at the L1 vertebra. Doctors told Jenn that the chance of Brian ever walking again was 1 to 2 percent.
“I thought I was going to throw up or pass out,” she said.
But doctors also advised her to not let Brian know. He still faced a surgery, and they wanted him calm and positive.
During that surgery, doctors deflated his lung and used a titanium cage to fuse the vertebrae, using his lowest left rib — a floater — as a bonding agent.
It was on Monday after the surgery that he learned the prognosis: He would remain a paraplegic.
“That’s when he said to me, ‘Get a piece of paper,’ and we made the list,” Jenn said.
In the months that followed his homecoming, Brian and Jenn learned to adjust to a new normal. Both lists — the one filled with home chores and the one he’d made in the hospital of races in which he intended to compete — were put to the side.
They went through what anyone would after an accident that forces a new approach to daily routine. Brian fought depression. Jenn struggled with balancing her instinct to reach out and help him — to get dressed, to reach something, to get in the car — with his need for independence.
The children learned to adjust to not having a dad who climbed trees and did handsprings in the yard as he once did. But Brian eventually resumed his role of serving as coach for 10-year-old Nick’s baseball and soccer teams, and he adjusted to driving a car outfitted with hand controls so that he could get to his job as an accountant at Downstream Casino Resort without being chauffeured.
Then, a turning point: Brian decided to enter a one-mile walk at Northpark Mall being held for autism awareness. Rolling his wheelchair through the mall proved no big thing.
Then, in June, he entered the 5K Race 4 Hope to raise funds for breast cancer awareness and support. Jenn accompanied him, and the event proved more challenging: A wheelchair on hilly roads can get out of control.
A summertime health fair at Downstream pointed Brian in the direction of accomplishing the rest of his list’s goals: He was introduced by a Freeman Health Essentials representative to a three-wheel hand cycle. Two weeks later, he tested a demo version of the bike in the parking lot of Baxter Springs High School.
Jenn captured it on video, which she posted on her Facebook page along with a wish that they could one day afford the contraption, which, even at a discount, cost $1,500. Within a few days, they learned that someone had called Health Essentials and paid for one for Brian.
“No one has fessed up to it to this day,” Jenn said.
Humbled and inspired that it might provide him the freedom to resume fitness, Brian learned to get out of his wheelchair and into the bike — he has to lift each leg with his hands, then slide in — and to ride it using hand controls that are near his chest.
He then jumped right to the last item on his bright yellow list: a marathon.
“The first time I was on the bike, I made it four miles and was exhausted,” he said. But he progressed in miles quickly, jumping to six, then 12, then, last Sunday, 30.
“I rode it in two hours and 40 minutes,” he said. “It was rough. But I did it.”
On Sunday, he’ll be one of two hand-cycle competitors in the Mother Road Marathon, which will take him 26.2 miles from Commerce to Joplin.
“I’m ready for it,” he said. “I’ve talked to the event coordinator two or three times, and I know the route.”
And of course, Brian has a goal.
“My goal is 2.5 hours,” he said. “I would like to do it in 2:10, but that may be pushing it.”
Brian is considering the Oklahoma Memorial Run and the Joplin Memorial Run.
“And I might do a half-triathlon,” he said. “I’m swimming now, too.”
He downplays any special attention or glory, noting that plenty of others competing in Sunday’s marathon have had challenges they’ve overcome in order to run.
“I’m not after the glory,” he said. “I’m just competing for myself.”
JENN SMITH and many friends and family members will turn out to cheer Brian Smith on during the marathon. They’ll be wearing T-shirts with a slogan he came up with as a child playing with Hot Wheels cars: “If you don’t have wheels, you can’t roll.”
BAXTER SPRINGS, Kan. —
It began with a list.
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