October 13, 2009
Friday’s Red Rally event signifies more than the beginning of another season of NC State basketball – it’s a time for the NC State community to rally together and support one of its own.
Former walk-on and four-year letterman Brian Keeter (’99-’02), who endeared himself to Wolfpack fans through hard work and a knack for piling up the points late in NC State victories, plans to return to campus for the first time since a December 2008, single-car accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down.
“This is a time when being a Wolfpack family is more important than it is at any other time – when we have the opportunity to come around one of our own and show support for Brian during his time of need,” said Bobby Purcell, executive director of NC State’s Wolfpack Club. “He means a lot to all of us here, and I hope that every member of the Wolfpack family will continue to keep Brian and his family in their thoughts and prayers.
“He’s one of us, a true Wolfpacker, and as a family, we need to be there for him.”
In addition to an extreme spinal cord fracture, Keeter dealt with internal injuries, broken bones and brain trauma following his late-night accident in Charlotte, N.C. He doesn’t remember anything about the event, and didn’t begin to piece together what had happened until late January as he emerged from intensive care.
“It was a tough time – it was the first time it really set in what I was facing, how many injuries I sustained and the possibility of never being able to walk again,” Keeter said. “I won’t lie – I can’t remember the last time before that I ever cried like that – I just lost it.”
With the same determination he showed as a member of the ‘Pack, Keeter dove into his recovery – only to quickly outpace the rehab he was given.
“Most of the therapy and recovery process at a hospital is about functioning with what you have – more about getting out of bed, getting dressed and those types of things,” said Keeter, who earned a schoalrship during his last two seasons at NC State. “In early February, I remember asking one of the therapists, ‘Why aren’t we trying to move my legs?’
“I think I annoyed them enough to put me on this bicycle that allowed me to move the pedals – with my hands, basically – and after doing that, I had tingling from my waist down for a few hours,” he said. “That was the first time I had felt anything below my belly button.”
The Cary, N.C., native was soon ready to move on to the next phase of his therapy: spinal cord recovery – an approach of regaining lost function and promoting overall body health.
“My rehab at the hospital was about learning to adapt and function without your legs,” Keeter said. “Thankfully, I still had my upper-body strength to move me around, so I got that down really quickly.
“Once I kind of realized what I could and couldn’t do from that standpoint, I wanted to become even more proactive about my recovery, and to be proactive about the things that didn’t work – my legs, and work toward regaining function and feeling in them.”
However, a pressure ulcer near his tailbone – an “extreme bedsore” which leads to tissue death and other serious complications – derailed those efforts. Only recently has Keeter recovered enough to truly move forward in his rehabilitation.
“It was really unfortunate – when I left the hospital in Charlotte in late March, the plan was to begin doing the things that I am getting ready to do now,” he said. “I was on my back most of the time in the hospital because that’s the way I felt the least amount of pain.”
Now, following outpatient therapy, Keeter works out regularly in the open-gym area at his hospital with a determined focus on true recovery rehabilitation. He’s packing up his Charlotte apartment to move closer to Mooresville’s Race to Walk center, the first exercise-based facility in the Southeast specifically designed for individuals suffering from paralysis.
Keeter has also been accepted to the Beyond Therapy program at Atlanta-based Shepherd Center, which allows patients to receive individual attention while exploring any number of innovative procedures that could help him reach their true goal. Keeter’s, he says, is simple.
“I want to get upright again, as I think humans are supposed to be,” Keeter said. “So that’s my goal, to get function in my legs – even if it’s not perfect and what it was before.
“I joke around with friends that I hope to get to the point where I can walk like an 80-year-old man with a cane,” he said with a laugh. “I won’t say that’s good enough, but maybe close to it.”
But it won’t come cheap. According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, first-year expenses alone average more than $283,000, and life expenses for paraplegics can blow past the $700,000 mark. A fundraising campaign has been established for Keeter through the Catastrophic Injury Program of the National Transplant Assistance Fund, but members of the NC State athletic department felt it important to pitch in where they could as well.
“It was brought to our attention some of the tremendous financial strains that his injuries have created for his family and his extended family,” said Dick Christy, associate athletic director for external operations at NC State. “This is just a small effort to help one of our own.
“The dedication that I have seen from Brian’s family in the short time we have worked on this event is truly special,” he said. “It has been a blessing for me to see their strength and love through this adversity, and to see Brian’s family and friends all pitching in to see that he gets the care he needs to be healthy and happy in the long-term.”
There is a two-year period in which a paralyzed patient’s spine can decompress, potentially bringing feeling back where it was once lost. Keeter, who could feel nothing below his belly button after his accident, has seen small – but significant – improvements since spring.
“If you are going to get feeling back, that’s when it happens,” Keeter said. “It’s gone from my belly button to the middle of my hips – will it go further?
“Who knows, but it’s made me feel better knowing that I’ve gotten something,” he said. “There are people who get nothing back and then there is a small percentage of people who get a lot back. It gives you hope.”
Former NBA star Rodney Rogers, who remains paralyzed from the neck down following a November 2008 motorcycle accident, was given a 5% chance of walking again – the same as Keeter.
“There’s one guy who can move only his head and neck, and another guy who can move from his hips up who have the exact same chance of walking,” he said. “So, I think it’s part physical and part chance.
“If it was just a physical challenge and I just had to work hard enough to pass this – it would be different,” he said. “I’m very stubborn in some ways – I have my good days and bad days – but I still think I am going to get through this and once I do, I don’t see myself in this chair.
“I definitely see myself as getting past this.”
An extraordinary network of family and friends, some of whom he has never met, has blessed Keeter throughout his ongoing recovery. It’s a bittersweet appreciation for someone who has always tried to avoid the spotlight dating back to before an era when “Keeter Time” highlight videos played before screaming Wolfpack fans at the RBC Center.
“The hardest thing for me is to see how much this has affected my family and the people who I care about,” Keeter said. “That’s my bigger concern – how much this has affected them and changed their lives over the last year.
“I’ve also received cards and things from people I don’t even know – I get stuff signed from whomever, and they’ve added ‘Wolfpack Nation’ or something like that,” he said. “It means so much to me – those things have been uplifting and also I want to let everybody know that I’m going to do my best to get through this.
“I’ve said to myself that I am not going to live like this for long,” Keeter said. “I don’t know, what that means, but I refuse to accept my current situation as the best it’s going to get.”