Five years after a serious accident left him with a broken neck, Michael O’Brien now sits tall in his new job as 911/OEM director for Pocahontas County. While he still uses a wheelchair most of the time, O’Brien has progressed to walking with arm crutches or a walker on a daily basis. S. Stewart photo
Five years after a serious accident left him with a broken neck, Michael O’Brien now sits tall in his new job as 911/OEM director for Pocahontas County. While he still uses a wheelchair most of the time, O’Brien has progressed to walking with arm crutches or a walker on a daily basis. S. Stewart photo

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

July 26, 2011 is a date Michael O’Brien will never forget. It was the day his life changed forever. That’s the day O’Brien wrecked his dirt bike, breaking his neck, cracking his scapula and breaking his left leg.

While the injuries he suffered could have paralyzed O’Brien from the neck down, he was lucky to have only lost feeling from his waist down for one month.

In the five years since the accident, O’Brien has worked dauntlessly to regain as much physicality as possible.

Now, O’Brien is the Pocahontas County 911/OEM Director and while he still uses a wheelchair most of the time, he has the ability to walk again with the use of a brace and arm crutches or walker.

The last time O’Brien was featured in The Pocahontas Times’ Wellness section, his goal was to walk again. Today, he is walking, mainly because his office is on the second floor of the 911 office.

“I’ve been progressing,” he said. “As you can see, I have to do the stairs every day. They offered to put a lift in for me to get up here. I don’t want it. With those stairs, I don’t have an option. Every day I have to face them. I have to do them and that’s been, hands down, the best physical therapy I’ve had since I got hurt.”

O’Brien recently got a new brace which helps him walk better, but it also has its downside, so most of the time, he leaves it at home.

“I can’t drive in it, so I have to take it off and put it back on,” he said. “It’s actually like a prosthetic leg. It goes around my leg and inside my shoe. When I walk, my toes want to point down and when I have to over correct that, it snaps my knee back. This brace holds my foot up and it doesn’t tear up my knee.”

When he does use the brace, O’Brien can see a big difference in his ability to walk.

“I feel better in it when I walk,” he said. “I walk faster and I’ve got a better stride, but I don’t have any balance in it because it’s like a rocker bottom. I can’t drive in it. It’s frustrating. It’s okay for around the house.”

While it is discouraging to have a brace which helps some, but not all the time, O’Brien hasn’t given up. He continues to research new technology which will, one day, help him walk even better .

“I’ve got an evaluation with a company called C-Brace [Orthotronic Mobility System],” he said. “Basically, it’s bionic legs, computer controlled bionic legs. I’m going to be going to Morgantown for an evaluation with those real soon. I still do research every day. There’s stories online and that’s where I read about C-Brace.”

The C-Brace is a brace that fits over the leg and uses a computer program to make walking easier. It is still experimental so O’Brien isn’t sure if it can help him, but he’s willing to try. Regardless of what happens, he will continue to push on and keep his head up.

“I’m thankful to be able to walk the way I do,” he said. “It doesn’t limit me now. I do anything I want to do. Sometimes it just takes a little more thought of how I’m going to do it.”

One thing from his past he never thought he would do again was race, but two years to the day after his accident, O’Brien was in a race car, competing at Elkins Speedway.

“The two year anniversary of my accident, I got my race car back out,” he said. “We actually built a new race car and went over to the Elkins Speedway. I raced a couple of times, and I finished fourth out of twenty-six cars.”

Having the new car to work on every day after work gave O’Brien a new found energy and added excitement to each day.

“That got me through a lot, knowing that I had that race car to come home and work on,” he said. “A lot of hard work paid off the day I strapped in and went out. I wasn’t sure whether or not I could do it. It was unreal. I got back in my race car, no modifications to the car. I say racing is worse than drugs to get off of. It’s all you think about and all you want to do.”

O’Brien has put his racing on the back burner for now, but he’s happy to know he can always return to the track.

In the five years since his accident, O’Brien went from working with Shaver’s Fork Fire and Rescue, to Pocahontas Memorial Hospital and now, to his current job as 911/OEM director – a job he loves and is thankful to have.

“This job came open and I was lucky enough to apply and get it,” he said. “With any new job, it’s scary. The unknown is tremendously scary for somebody like me because you just don’t know what the future holds and whether or not you can do it physically. Physically, this job has gone well and there’s a lot of good help.”

It helps that he works with a lot of great people, including newly appointed deputy OEM director Travis Cook.

“We coordinate well,” O’Brien said. “He’s only part-time. He’s a full-time dispatcher and then on days they don’t need him in dispatch, he works with me upstairs. I’m real thankful for that. We had a work relationship – we worked together at Shaver’s Fork. He’s a lot like me. It’s more than a job. It’s life. He’s been in it since he was a kid. I’ve been in it since I was a kid and now we’re fortunate to still be in it.”

O’Brien also completed his training to become a licensed paramedic. As someone who grew up in the public service field and has been firefighter, EMT, paramedic and now director, he is grateful his injury has not held him back from being in the field he loves.

In fact, now that he’s been on both sides of a rescue situation, O’Brien feels he has a better understanding of how victims feel and can help them through their ordeal in a unique way.

“I’m more compassionate about injuries,” he said. “It hits home more when I know the road people are going to face, especially when they have injuries. I hope, in a way, I help mentally prepare them a little bit and follow them a little closer. It definitely gives you a different perspective when you’re the one laying on the cot, looking up. It teaches us a lot about life and what people really go through when they’re in that situation.”

O’Brien’s personal life has flourished, as well as his career and hobbies. He is engaged to Ashley Sharp and the couple have a new addition to the family – a Blue Heeler pup.

Things are going well in life and, if we did another update in five years, O’Brien wouldn’t change much from the way things are today.

“I hope to be right here in five years,” he said. “We can do the follow-up right here in this office – maybe by then it will be a new building, but right here is where I want to be. Injury wise, I hope to continue to progress. With different medications and different techniques, things are always changing.

“Who knows what five years will hold,” he continued. “I hope it’s good. I think the good Lord will decide what’s best and He’s no doubt helped me get this far. I’m very thankful that everything has happened the way it’s happened. I really enjoy my new job and I’m thankful for everything I have in life right now. I’m content, but I’m never giving up.”

O’Brien has learned that the way life is now is normal. It may not have been the normal he imagined prior to his accident, but it’s a normal that he can live with and lives with very well.

“The injury really hasn’t slowed me down a whole lot,” he said. “It’s just changed the way I process and the way I have to look at things. My normal – it’s almost become a normal to me now – having the chair, having the situation now. It’s become my normal versus your every day normal. It takes me a little longer to get out of bed in the mornings and tie my shoes, but I get up every day and go.”

Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at sastewart@pocahontastimes.com