Local man beats injury, back at restaurant
By Ty Johnson
Published in News on July 1, 2012 1:50 AM
Bryan Lewis works the cash register at Zaxby's on Berkeley Boulevard. Lewis returned to work a couple weeks ago, almost a year and a half after being partially paralyzed in an October 2010 car accident.
When Bryan Lewis shakes your hand, his fingers don't close around yours. The paralysis from the October 2010 car accident is still there. But he greets you with a confident smile that belies his grip.
Determination radiates from him -- an intangible sign of the drive he never lost during the rehabilitation that brought him back to work at Zaxby's restaurant, just where he was before the crash that changed his life.
He takes orders from customers just as he did three years ago when he was the first person the new restaurant hired. He now has to used a wheelchair, but every word he speaks and every movement of his arm comes in defiance of the doctors that said he would never regain his voice or ability to move.
They said he would never walk again, too, but Lewis said flatly that he isn't done defying the medical limits set for him.
"This isn't it for me," he said.
Lewis was 19 years old when he fell asleep at the wheel on the way home from Greensboro with three friends.
The car veered off the road and he awoke and tried to correct the car's direction. But it struck and embankment and flipped four times.
Lewis was taken by helicopter to WakeMed for surgery on his crushed vertebrae while his three passengers walked away from the crash.
Completely paralyzed from the waist down and partially paralyzed in his upper body, Lewis began an intense physical therapy and training regimen in advance of his return home in January 2011.
Neighbors, friends, family members and co-workers came together to help prepare his family's house for his homecoming, widening doors, installing lifts and remodeling rooms to allow for more wheelchair accessibility.
He had been an athlete when he attended Rosewood High. He had danced, sang and volunteered at the Boys and Girls Club, and was an active participant at Alpha and Omega Christian Center, his family's church.
But even though he was home, in a house refitted for him, he couldn't speak, much less sing.
"I didn't have a voice," he says now. "I had to have other people say 'thank you' for me."
Unable to speak and needing regular attention, he says now that he felt guilty for putting pressure on his parents to care for him. He remembers dictating to his mother as she typed for him on Facebook.
"I used to feel like a burden," he said.
But his spirit remained unbroken. He learned to type with the knuckle of his pinkie finger -- still the only finger he can move -- and composed a book of poetry.
"I decided I wasn't going to sit at home moping," he said. "I got back in the community."
Today, he's back behind the counter at Zaxby's. He has to work shorter shifts, but not because he can't handle the workload, but because disability laws won't permit him to remain on Medicaid if he pulls longer hours.
Besides working, Lewis has found another outlet for his pent-up energy -- sharing his story of hope with others have themselves in similar situations.
The book he composed while recovering, "Writings of a Poet," is available for purchase online and he's already begun writing another, this time a book about his accident and subsequent recovery. He hopes it will serve as an inspiration to others confined to wheelchairs and their families.
When he was first told he would never talk again, he said his first inclination was to be discouraged, but he didn't let that last long.
"I was out to prove them wrong," he said.
The fact that doctors maintain he will never walk again simply fires up his will.
"It just fueled me even more. I plan on walking," he said.
This summer, Lewis will return to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta for a month-long rehabilitation stint and he's hoping to be driving again as part of his quest back toward a normal life.
He is recognized among Zaxby's patrons every now and then, he said, which makes him feel like he was missed during his absence, but just like the customers missed him handing over food, so he missed his ability to eat it.
He went about six months during his recovery without food or drink, his only sustenance coming through a tube. So when he was first allowed to eat, he was worried his taste buds had changed.
But when he had his first meal since the accident, a steak, it turned out there was nothing to worry about.
"It was the best steak I had ever tasted," he said, adding that he likes the spicier wings his employer offers now more than ever after not being allowed them for so long.
In many ways, Lewis is trying to get his life back to normal. He's working so he can get back on track with the degree he's pursuing at Wayne Community College in physical therapy, looking forward to more rehabilitation to try to increase his mobility and lifting weights to give him back the strength he lost during his time in recovery.
"Everybody says they're ready to be done with school, but I can't wait to go back," he said.
And just returning to work has provided him with strength of purpose.
"For me to get out and work, it makes me feel better as a man," he said.
Lewis said he hopes that his successes will validate the contributions of others to his recovery.
"I want to take care of the people that took care of me. Anybody that had a hand in the Bryan Lewis recovery project -- I want to give back to them."
That includes his parents and family, his church family, friends and co-workers, he said, and he aims to continue to improve his health and independence not only for himself, but also for those who invested so much in him.
Lewis said he also still aims to accomplish his goal of owning and running his own dance studio, offering classes for underprivileged children like he did at the Boys & Girls Club.
An impossible goal?
Don't try telling Brian Lewis that.