Ready for the Challenge
On the morning of March 28, 2011, OTR truck driver Preston Breshears and his driving partner set out from Springfield, MO with a tractor trailer full of orange juice bound for Denver, CO. Since his partner wanted to drive the first leg of the trip, Breshears climbed into the truck’s sleeper compartment to rest for his turn at the wheel. The next thing he remembered was waking up in a hospital bed in Kansas City.
Weeks passed before Breshears learned what actually happened on that fateful March day: While he was sleeping the rig had gone off the road, dropped from a 50’ tall overpass, landed on some railroad tracks below, and caught fire. His driving partner didn’t survive.
Fortunately for Breshears, several heroic witnesses had come to his aid and by using a chain tied to a pickup truck were able to get the big rig’s door open and pull him from the burning wreckage. He’d been rescued, but he wasn’t out of the woods yet.
“I had several broken ribs, a punctured lung, a shattered femur and foot, a head injury, a shattered cheekbone, a broken nose and a fractured eye socket,” said Breshears. “Plus, the fire had cooked my left leg to the bone, so there was no question that it had to be amputated.”
It was touch-and-go for several days and Breshears was kept in a medically induced coma to help him recover. Despite having a shattered foot and ankle, doctors initially held out hope that his right leg, could still be saved. However, during the surgery to remove the left leg Breshears ‘crashed’ on the operating table, so his doctors made an emergency decision to remove the right leg too because it was mangled so badly.
Three weeks after the accident, Breshears was transferred via air evac helicopter to White River Medical Center in Batesville, AR to be closer to family during his recovery. He continued to recover well, and within about one and a half weeks he was transferred by ambulance to the Baptist Health Rehabilitation Institute (BRI) in Little Rock.
“When I was initially interviewed by Angela [his occupational therapist), she asked me what I hoped to do,” said Breshears. “Without hesitating, I told her that I wanted to learn how to run. Her exact reply was, ‘Let’s learn to walk first.'”
It was Breshears’ eager attitude that first impressed his therapists at the rehab hospital. To take advantage of as much one-on-one time as possible with his therapy team during his limited time there, Breshears would lift weights and exercise on the stationary bike during his free time instead of during his scheduled daily therapy time. By doing this, he could maximize the time he spent with his occupational and physical therapists so they could work with him on new skills instead of observing him doing routine exercises.
“I view this not as a disability, but as a challenge,” said Breshears. “If someone tells me I can’t do it, chances are I’m gonna prove them wrong, because I can do everything I used to do. I just have to do some things in a different way now.”
Perhaps it was Breshear’s children and grandchild who served as his inspiration while he was in rehabilitation, or maybe his military background played some part in his drive to overcome adversity. (According to him, he routinely ran seven miles each day to stay in shape during his time as a Senior Master Sergeant in the Air Force’s Special Operations Command.)
“Before the accident I was in decent shape and weighed right around 200 pounds,” Breshears noted. “But after lying on my back in a hospital bed for several weeks, I had lost so much muscle mass that I only weighed 145. I’ve never felt that weak before.”
While waiting on his left side to heal and become weight-bearing, Frank Snell, CPO, LPO, FAAOP (Breshears’ prosthetist) fitted him onsite at BRI with a total surface bearing socket paired with an advanced energy-storing foot system. And, when Breshears’ physician gave him the green light for full weight-bearing on his left side several days later, Snell fitted him with a matching setup.
“The first time I met Preston, I knew he was going to be successful,” said Snell. “He has more courage than any newly amputated patient I’ve ever seen. I really can’t say enough about his positive attitude, his motivation, and his cooperation as a patient. It sure makes my job easier.”
However, Breshears did have one special request for the prosthetics team at Snell Laboratory. According to Breshears, he was 5’10” before the accident, but he had always wanted to be 6’ tall. Fortunately, this wish wasn’t very difficult to grant:
“Preston was determined to be six feet tall. He decided that if he was going to get the chance to customize his legs, he wanted to take advantage of it,” explained Snell. “We were going to add transverse rotational units to both of his prostheses anyway, so we just considered the components' height when we did the fabrication and voila...he is now six feet tall.”
“The day I received my left leg I told my therapists that I would soon be walking out of the hospital unassisted,” shared Breshears. “Less than two weeks later on July 17, I did just that.”
Only three days after being discharged from BRI, Breshears set off on a three week vacation trek with his mother and father. With the assistance of hand controls on his vehicle, he drove the entire 6,100 miles of the trip first heading to Seattle, WA to visit his aunt, then to Tucson, AZ to see his daughter and his first grandchild, Alexis, with several stops along the way. Breshears had already spent time with “Lexi” (his nickname for Alexis) before the accident, but seeing her again after all that he had been through made the visit all the more special.
His positive attitude has led Breshears to enthusiastically share his story with others. While he welcomes the opportunity to chat with others who have amputations, he also doesn’t mind when people come up and ask him questions.
“I especially enjoy talking with children,” Breshears said. “They ask the funniest questions like, ‘do your legs get cold, or do you sleep with your legs on?’’
Breshears has had several opportunities to talk to groups such as the Boy Scouts and classes in the Joplin Area Catholic School System. In fact, he was invited to speak to some of the children at St. Mary’s Elementary School in Joplin, MO, a school which was destroyed by the EF5 tornado that hit the area on May 22. The children of one of the third grade classes were so interested in Breshears’ story that they “adopted” him and continue to keep in touch with him and follow his progress.
Recently, he has had a small setback in his progress. Just before Thanksgiving, Breshears learned that his left residual leg had developed tibia splinters so he had to undergo surgery on November 19. Then on December 1 he underwent a similar surgery on his right leg to cut the fibula back and address some stability issues. On January 12, Breshears received approval from his physician to bear weight on both legs, so Snell was able to cast molds of his residual limbs and send them off to have custom liners fabricated. Since the new custom liners arrived, Frank has been able to fit Breshears for new test sockets.
Breshears is tentatively scheduled to return to Baptist Rehab on the 23 of January for 7-10 days of therapy. During Breshear’s stay in the hospital, Snell should be able to make any necessary adjustments to the new set of legs that feature elevated vacuum suspension so that when he is discharged he will be able to return home and start training for the 5k run he hopes to compete in later this year.
“I now live in Ava, Missouri so I have to drive approximately 475 miles round-trip to go to Snell’s Little Rock facility, but I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else,” Breshears said. “Their knowledge of prosthetics is so advanced and their reputation is excellent. I have nothing but admiration for Frank and his staff.”