Katie’s Story
Southern Sports & Travel, By Darron Thomas
Imagine, if you will, placing your hand in a boiling pot of water and leaving it there for thirty three minutes.
An entire Superbowl halftime show takes approximately thirty three minutes as does watching the local news in the evenings. Watching an episode of the most popular comedy series on television, The Big Bang Theory, takes thirty minutes. There are thirty two minutes of clock time in a high school varsity basketball game.
On October 132011 at the intersection of Highway 10 and Choctaw Road, nestled between Franklinton and Bogalusa, Katie Breland lay motionless for thirty three minutes pinned underneath the 2010 Nissan Murano she had just been ejected from.
Katie, a 2005 graduate of Ben’s Ford Academy, was traveling the road she had traveled many times before but on this occasion what transpired altered her life dramatically.
The stop sign at the end of Choctaw Road was an afterthought this particular day and Katie was struck violently by an oncoming transport van heading east on its’ way to Bogalusa. Katie’s front and side airbags deployed but she had already been ejected through the windshield before they could protect her.
After being ejected the car landed upright directly on top of Katie pinning her near the front of the vehicle and almost directly under the engine with her body nearly entirely folded in half. All this time the scorching hot engine was burning Katie and for the longest thirty minutes of her life she never lost consciousness.
“I could hear people who had stopped to help say “that girl didn’t make it” and I could hear them running towards the other vehicle to check on them and that’s when I started screaming for help,” said Breland.
“I knew while I was trapped under the car that I was not going to die, I can’t explain it but I just had a peace about it but I also knew instantly that I was paralyzed or that my legs were not attached to my body.”
One of those who had stopped to lend assistance got under the car to calm Katie until EMS arrived.
Once Katie was removed from underneath the vehicle and transported to Bogalusa she immediately wanted to know the extent of her injuries and if she was going to die. After a few hours she was transported  by helicopter to University Hospital in New Orleans.
Katie’s examination at the University Hospital emergency care facility resulted in news that she had suffered severe burns to 75% of her back and one side and a collapsed lung but the worst news that mother Tina and father Troy did not want to hear, a severed spinal cord and that she would never walk again.
When Katie received the news herself she promptly told the doctor “we’ll see about that.”
(Above) Katie during the early stages of recovery in New Orleans
It is at this point in the story that some background be provided into just who Katie Breland is.
Katie Breland, who could easily grace the cover of Vogue Magazine, was a fierce competitor while at Ben’s Ford Christian School in Bogalusa, Louisiana. Her senior year she averaged 22 points a game for the Lady Eagles and was selected as an MAIS All-Star for the south. She was a cheerleader, competed in softball, track, cross country and was an avid runner and fitness fanatic. She won back-to-back Class A state discus titles in 2004 and 2005.
Following graduation she enrolled at Pearl River Community College and in 2008 started working as a Physical Therapy Assistant (PTA) at Therapeutic Concepts in Bogalusa and working as a personal trainer at HL Brownstone while at the same time competing in distance running and triathlons.
Her experience through her studies at PRCC and work at Therapeutic Concepts not only prepared Katie for what to expect following her accident but it also provided her with the insight shared through her work with similar accident victims.
Not long after Katie’s arrival at University Hospital in New Orleans she underwent spinal surgery. The nine hour procedure included rod placement but it also brought encouraging news. Katie’s spinal cord, while damaged, was not severed.
“When they first talked to me two days after the accident they told me my spinal cord was severed and I told them they were wrong but I knew in the back of my mind that medically speaking if your spinal cord is severed you can’t walk again but I said to myself that there was no way I would never walk again.”
With the spinal surgery completed the next stage of Katie’s recovery began and it was something Katie was not prepared for, treatment of her severe burns.
The treatment included debridement which is a painful removal of damaged tissue which then makes way for the skin grafts. In all Katie endured ten debridement and skin graft procedures during her 100 days of stay in a handful of facilities in the New Orleans area. “The spinal surgery and rod placement was a nine hour surgery but it was like a paper cut compared to the debridement and skin graph surgeries.”
The burn treatment also delayed Katie’s physical therapy for her spinal injury. It was four weeks before she started receiving therapy and she knew how critical it was to begin working her muscles below her waist as quickly as possible to prevent further atrophy to a body that contained very little fat.
During rehab her competitive nature kicked in. “I told the therapists to give me something to do to help me cope with this better, give me something that is competitive. Don’t just lay me on the bed and tell me to roll over, that is not who I am.”
So Katie was given something she enjoyed, basketball. (Photo left) “It felt good to do something that I could be best in, I needed that.”
When Katie received notice that she would be sent home after more than three months in the hospital both her and her mother Tina knew there would be huge adjustments to be made but for Tina she relied on faith and many prayers to carry her through life at home with her daughter.
One aspect that didn’t change was the way Tina would treat Katie. “I wasn’t going to baby her because I knew how strong she has always been and with her competiveness and inner strength I had no doubt that she would adjust.”
“We’ve had our good days and bad days,” said Tina. “It’s been a daily struggle and Katie has emotional battles but that’s just a part of it but we’ve both always had a sense of humor and that has helped us tremendously.”
Fifteen months after her accident Katie is still the strong, independent and fiercely competitive person she was prior to October 11th, 2011. She returned to work two weeks after her release from the hospital and still works as a personal trainer and has taught cardio classes. “I needed to get back to work, I needed to help somebody.”
Katie was recently introduced to two individuals who not only shared the same experiences as her but have also been very inspirational in her recovery.
A month or so ago she was asked by some friends to go along with them to eat at a restaurant in Covington and she initially hesitated about going because she was not having a good day and a bit depressed. She reluctantly agreed to go and just as the group was preparing to leave the restaurant after their meal someone touched Katie on her back.
“I was talking with a friend and before I finished my sentence I felt someone touch my back so when I turned I saw this man in a wheelchair and he asked me how long had I been in my chair.”
This man turned out to be Michael Drury, a wealthy businessman from the area. “He told me he had been paralyzed for seven years but had recently started getting some feeling in his legs. In my mind this was God’s way of leading me when I was feeling so down and depressed.”
(Above) Katie and Brock Mealer
Recently Katie was made aware of Brock Mealer’s story. Mealer was in an accident and sustained similar injuries to Katie’s in 2007. Katie decided to take a chance and send Brock a friend request through Facebook and he immediately accepted. After the two related their stories to each other it was then that Katie learned of Mike Barwis.
Brock Mealer’s younger brother Elliot plays football at The University of Michigan and Mike Barwis was the strength and conditioning coach for the Wolverines.
Brock shared with Katie the work Barwis had done with him and the favorable results. Three years following his accident he was able to walk out onto the Michigan football field with his brother and mother at his side prior to the Wolverines 2010 season opener against Connecticut.
“Brock has been a huge inspiration to me,” said Katie. “His injuries were almost identical to mine and when I researched his story I sent a friend request on Facebook and just minutes later he accepted. He said he was going to walk down the aisle at his wedding and he did just that a few weeks ago.”
This past October an event was formed in the Bogalusa area called Katie’s Kause to help raise the necessary funds for Katie and her mother to fly to Grand Rapids, Michigan where the Barwis Training Facility is located.
Katie arrived in Michigan this past Friday and will receive attention during her ten day stay.
When I first contacted Katie about letting me interview her I told her it would take 30 minutes, 45 minutes tops, but before I knew it three hours had passed by. I found myself in total awe of her determination and grit while at the same time trying to ask pertinent questions in an area that has been eating away at me for months.
Over the past few years tragedies within the MAIS family seem to come more frequently amongst students. I think of tragedies at Trinity, Brookhaven, Central Private and Tri-County involving auto accidents and I instantly thought about Katie who my family has known since she was in elementary school.
Katie reminded me of how we all take things for granted. “I would always walk into the gym and look over at the treadmill and think what if I could never run on it again but my biggest fear now is having this great story to tell but not having the ending I want.”
What ifs are not always asked in comfortable settings and when I asked Katie about the day of the accident and those thirty three minutes of pain and torture underneath her vehicle I knew the ultimate question would have to be asked if I were to follow up on the intense feelings I have had for the past few weeks regarding recent tragedies.
(Above) Katie following intensive physical therapy still flashes that smile
Katie had shared with me that her side and front airbags had deployed but she had already been ejected through the windshield of her car and I knew in the back of my mind that she knew the question would arise.
Were you wearing your seatbelt?
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t say what if I would have had my seatbelt on.”
Katie Breland is a unique individual and I had no hesitation sharing with her how I couldn’t exude the strength and will to overcome as she does. Katie’s recovery continues and her faith, and as Katie’s mother phrased it, “stubbornness” is why they both are confident in saying that she will indeed walk again.
“I don’t ever want to be content to be in this chair,” said Katie. “It may take me ten years or the rest of my life but I must have that goal of walking again. My competitive spirit has definitely helped me a lot and I have full confidence in saying this isn’t going to change who I am.”
Katie also has etched in her mind the doctors who said she would never walk again. “I want to be able to say look at me now.”
Katie has competed in several bike races recently on a specially designed bicycle and she has no plans of letting her current situation define her.
She is the embodiment of inspiration that needs to be shared with others who have suffered such tragedies and a reminder for those who take things for granted.
On a personal note, my wife has recently suffered through four months of recovery following surgery that was the result of a bone spur impeding her spinal cord and rendering her unable to walk briefly. Her rehab through physical therapy was conducted at Therapeutic Concepts in Bogalusa and her physical therapist was one Katie Breland who as my wife put it, “worked my tail off.”
My hope in presenting Katie’s story is that two messages be deduced from it. The first is the inspirational aspect and the second is the need for schools and parents to stridently promote and encourage teens to understand how fragile life is and how no parent wants their child to experience thirty three minutes laying helpless on a highway with mangled steel laying on top of them.
If your school doesn’t promote or provide life lesson programs when it comes to teenage driving and the results of one split second of distraction ask them what will it take to not take things for granted any longer.