Iraq vet from Vancouver hoping for surgery, mobility

Army infantryman was paralyzed by sniper's bullet in 2004

By Jessica Prokop, Columbian Courts Reporter



How to help

To donate to Spc. Brandon Powell’s medical fund:

Hope has lingered in the back of Brandon Powell’s mind for the last 13 years — hope that he will somehow, someday regain the slightest mobility in his fingers, hands and arms so he can perform the simplest of tasks, such as brushing his teeth.

The young Army veteran became paralyzed from the upper chest down after being shot in the neck by a sniper on Nov. 30, 2004, in Mosul, Iraq. Powell, an Abrams crewman, was serving with the U.S. Army Stryker Brigade 3-21 infantry. He had only been in Iraq for about two months of what was expected to be a yearlong tour.

Powell, 33, of Vancouver has spent more than a decade in a wheelchair operated by a chin joystick. Regaining any mobility in his fingers or hands would be life-changing.

About 10 months ago, his friend came across a procedure that may help make that happen — epidural spinal stimulation. But first, Powell must raise $100,000 to pay for the surgery and travel costs. As of Nov. 20, he had raised $14,200 through a GoFundMe account, some of that money came from a benefit concert held in conjunction with Veterans Day.

Powell’s best friend, Dustin Troupe, 33, saw the procedure on the BBC and became excited, he said, so they looked into it further. They watched a video posted online about a man with a C4 vertebrae injury — the same level of injury as Powell — who responded well to the treatment. He was able to move his fingers and arms, and with the use of a hoist, took assisted steps, Troupe said.

He is always on the lookout for treatments that could help his friend, he added.

The procedure, which is offered by Unique Access Medical, is a two-part surgery that is only being performed in Bangkok, Thailand, to their knowledge.

“It’s pretty much the only place doing it. It’s still new, and there’s not a huge need for it,” Troupe said. “Messing with anyone’s spine is very dangerous and expensive.”

An epidural stimulation device is surgically connected to the nerve systems and emits a continuous electrical current to allow for limb movements. The stimulator is controlled by a remote control, according to the company’s website.

If Powell can regain movement in one of his hands, he can get a new wheelchair with a hand joystick.

The surgery may also help control lower body spasms. Troupe said he’s hopeful that Powell’s spasms mean there’s still connectivity in his body, that some signals are getting down to his legs.

“When it comes to the nervous system, it’s pretty dangerous. I’m kind of worried,” Powell said. “But getting only one hand back would change my whole life.”

Troupe will travel with Powell to Thailand for the procedure. They would be there for at least 40 days for the surgery and physiotherapy, Troupe said. There’s also a separate regenerative medicine treatment.

“It’s really intense,” Troupe said.

‘A little hope’

Powell and his platoon were conducting a clearance sweep of a mosque. As he kept watch from the hatch of an armored personnel carrier, a sniper shot him from the third floor. He was 20 years old at the time.

“I can still remember it. I heard gunshots, and it felt like someone punched me in the throat,” Powell said. Then he was lying on the floor of the vehicle, staring up at the sky, he said.

A doctor at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., told him he will never walk again or use his hands, and there’s no cure.

“I’ve always had a little hope in the back of my mind,” Powell said. “They’re always working on something.”

His new way of life has been challenging. He misses the “small things,” he said, such as feeding himself, using the restroom on his own or scratching his nose.

Powell’s younger brother, Blaine, is his primary caregiver, and they live together with Blaine’s wife and their two sons. Powell said he has a niece on the way.

“If it weren’t for him, I’d probably be in a nursing home,” he said of his brother.

Powell spends much of his day in front of a computer screen. An electroencephalogram sensor allows him to control the mouse and keyboard so he can type a book he’s been working on and play computer games, such as “World of Warcraft.” He occasionally paints figurines, using his mouth to maneuver the paint brush. Powell and his friends go to a lot of movies and concerts, Troupe said.

‘Change my life’

Powell and Troupe started the GoFundMe account about three months ago.

And through Troupe’s connections to the bar industry, Vancouver’s Cascade Bar & Grill held a daylong benefit concert for Powell on the Sunday of Veterans Day weekend.

The turnout was a bit smaller than they were hoping for, Troupe said, but the benefit raised $3,400. Of that amount, the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7824 in Vancouver presented Powell with a $1,550 check.

Troupe said they hope to hit their fundraising goal within the next six months to a year.

“If I could at least get hand control that would just completely change my life around,” Powell said of the epidural stimulation surgery. “I know it’s high hopes.”