In July 2021, 29-year-old Spencer Brown and his family were celebrating a huge milestone. Brown would soon graduate from New York University (NYU) with a master's degree in cybersecurity. At the time, Brown, his wife, and their two young daughters were living in Charleston, South Carolina, where Brown worked and attended graduate school remotely.
NYU's graduation had been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so during the hot summer months of 2021, Brown and his family traveled to their home state of Utah to escape the southern humidity and spend time with friends and family.
Near the end of the visit to Utah, Brown's wife threw a graduation pool party and shared an exciting announcement: a new baby was on the way. Brown and his wife were expecting their third child, due February 2022.
As he has done many times before at his in-laws' pool, Brown, standing 6'7" tall, stepped up to the diving board and dove into the pool "penguin style" with his arms down by his side. Unfortunately, the force of the dive caused Brown's head to hit the bottom of the pool, splitting open his scalp, breaking his neck, and injuring his spinal cord.
"I immediately lost sensation from the neck down and couldn't move," Brown said. "I was in the water, at the bottom of the pool, thinking 'OK, maybe this is it… I guess I've lived a good life.'"
Luckily, Brown's family noticed him floating face down in the water. His wife and others jumped in and flipped him over so he could breathe while they waited for the paramedics to arrive. Brown was rushed to Intermountain Medical Center (IMC) in Murray, Utah, where scans revealed a C3 to C6 spinal cord injury.
Brown broke his C6 vertebrae (his neck) and injured C3 through C5, leaving his spinal cord partially severed. When a spinal cord is completely severed, the patient is a quadriplegic, meaning they won't regain sensation, movement, or muscle control below the level of the injury.
Although Brown's injuries were devastating, there was a glimmer of hope. His spinal cord wasn't completely severed, rendering him an incomplete quadriplegic. This meant that, over time, he could potentially regain some muscle control and movement in his arms and legs.
After five days at IMC, Brown was transferred to the Craig H. Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital on August 4, 2021, where his recovery journey began. When Brown first arrived at Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital, he had no feeling from his chest down and no muscle control whatsoever. During his three-month hospital stay, there were many small, significant milestones that helped both Brown and his wife keep the faith and keep pushing forward.
Brown worked with physical therapists and occupational therapists for hours every day to regain as much movement and muscle control as possible. Just three weeks after arriving at the rehab hospital, Brown's care team had him up on his feet. Utilizing equipment and technology geared specifically towards patients with spinal cord injuries, Brown was able to walk around the indoor track at the hospital.
Brown's care team also focused on hand function. Brown went from no feeling or movement to small finger movements, then to relearning how to grasp and pick things up. When Brown left Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital on November 2, 2021, he went home in a powered wheelchair. Over the next five months, Brown worked on transitioning to a walker. He compares his recovery progress to "watching grass grow."
"It's pretty slow," he said. "But once you go away and come back, you notice the improvements. Every day, I am getting a little bit better and improving." In February 2022, Brown and his wife welcomed their third child—another daughter. And in May 2022, Brown traveled to New York City with his wife to attend the commencement ceremony at NYU's Tandon School of Engineering. With assistance from his wife, Brown walked across the stage to receive his diploma.
Now, a few weeks after the one-year anniversary of his accident, Brown can walk on his own using forearm crutches. While walking is a huge blessing, it also increases the risk of falling—a reality that both Brown and his wife must live with. Brown recently fell so hard that one of his forearm crutches snapped in half. With no one home to help, he spent 30 minutes trying to get up off the slippery wood floor by himself without success. Luckily, his wife returned home and was able to help him up.
Now, Brown has started getting up off the floor by himself, a skill he will continue to practice and master. Although it has been a difficult year for Brown and his family, there has been much to celebrate. Brown's resilience has held strong, carrying him, his wife, and their beautiful daughters through the highs and lows.
"Am I going to be a bump on a log and a burden to my family?" Brown asked. "That's not the right thing to do, so you just kind of figure it out. I want to be able to participate in my life with my family. I want to be more independent so I can lessen the burden on my wife. I want to go outside and play with my daughters. That's what keeps me going."