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Oklahoman finds a miracle in a different form

Dr. Dale Brannon for a Bryan Painter "People of Character" , Monday, June 2, 2014.  Photo by David McDaniel, The Oklahoman
Dr. Dale Brannon for a Bryan Painter "People of Character" , Monday, June 2, 2014. Photo by David McDaniel, The Oklahoman

The miracle came. Just not as expected.

People from where Dale Brannon grew up in Okmulgee County and where he was residing in Stillwater were both praying for a miracle at the time of the accident in March 1994 in Colorado.

And it came, said Brannon, who suffered a spinal cord injury and was left paralyzed from the chest down with limited motion of his arms.

But, he said, the miracle wasn’t the one they were praying for: that he would be healed and walk out of the hospital in Colorado.

“The miracle I received was that I never had difficulty accepting my new challenges,” said Brannon, 44, who lives near Edmond. “I had been told success stories about people with similar injuries and my attitude was that if they can be successful then there’s no reason why I couldn’t be successful. I had the best support system in the world. My hospital room was full of flowers and vases and balloons and get-well cards made by entire elementary school classes.

“I was in the hospital in Colorado, but my wife was there, my mother and father were there, my sister was there, my uncle, high school buddies, college friends, and even my landlord came to see me in the hospital in Colorado. I had no doubt that I had the greatest support system that anyone could ask for. I had no excuse not to continue on and be successful.”

Brannon said with the support and acceptance of the new lifelong circumstances, he was able to accomplish rehab goals that had been set for him by his doctors and therapists three weeks early.

Before the accident

While growing up in rural Oklahoma, Brannon dreamed of being a veterinarian.

But at some point during his two-year Mormon church mission Brannon changed his mind and decided he wanted to be a medical doctor. Specifically, the revised dream was to become a small-town doctor in a rural community, “The kind of doctor who looks back on his career after 50 years and can say that he delivered the whole town.”

On March 7, 1994, he and a friend were in a 1991 pickup traveling westbound on Interstate 70 between Burlington and Vona, Colo. Brannon, at the time a student at Oklahoma State University, was headed to Utah. He’d studied at Brigham Young University before transferring to OSU and was going to see his BYU anatomy professor for a letter of recommendation for his medical school applications.

Brannon had driven for about eight hours, but then they switched and the friend took over.

The truck started to spin on black ice. When they left the highway they were going backward. The truck flipped end over end backward down an embankment and did a quarter-roll onto the passenger side of the vehicle. Brannon was partially ejected from the rear window.

Continuing as planned

“I remember lying in the hospital flat on my back, paralyzed from the chest down, wondering if it were still possible to go to medical school and become a physician without the use of my hands,” Brannon said. “I started thinking about alternative careers. I considered teaching, or opening a small business or restaurant, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that those things did not appeal to me. I wanted to become a doctor.”

Within his first week as an inpatient at a hospital in Denver, Brannon’s temperature was spiking to 105 degrees each night without an obvious source of infection.

“All of my wounds and sutures were clean and dry,” he said. “The doctors ordered a radiolabeled white blood cell study, something that I had never heard of.

“It turns out that there was no infection and my fevers were most likely due to a head injury I sustained during the wreck. Nevertheless, that radiolabeled white blood cell study amazed me. That was my first exposure to nuclear medicine. With a newly kindled interest in nuclear medicine, I decided to continue my plans to apply to medical school.”

Today, Dr. Brannon is full-time at OU Medical Center. He currently serves as the nuclear medicine residency program director, on the admissions board for the OU College of Medicine and as an alternate on the Faculty Senate.

“My physical situation has not changed,” he said. “My spinal cord injury was a complete injury and no return of function was ever expected. I use a power wheelchair for mobility and am able to drive independently in a vehicle that has been equipped with a wheelchair lift and a tri-pin steering device, similar to a steering knob.”

The accelerator and brake are controlled by his left arm. And, the only thing difficult for him about driving now is backing a trailer.

Does he see himself an inspiration? No, Brannon said. “I am just doing what I would have done if I had not broken my neck.”

However, he does see himself as the recipient of a miracle — that of accepting each day’s challenges instead of giving in to them.

Bryan Painter

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