A 1% Chance Is Enough

Brandon Lyons has a less than 1% chance of walking again after an accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down, but meeting him, you’d never know it.

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For Brandon Lyons, a rising star at professional services organization EY, overcoming the challenges of a spinal cord injury has been built with two key elements: the support of family, friends and co-workers, and an unrelenting will to keep moving forward.

Back in college, Brandon had everything going for him. Enrolled in the prestigious Penn State supply chain management program, he joined EY’s internship program the summer between his junior and senior years. As the internship progressed and he started to work directly on client engagements, he felt he was really beginning to spread his wings. At the conclusion of his internship, EY flew him – and several thousand of his fellow interns – down to Florida for their annual International Intern Leadership Conference. During the IILC, Brandon, like so many top EY interns, received his first job offer.

“It was exciting,” he recalls. “To know that my career [was] essentially starting [at the] beginning of senior year was such a stress reliever,” he smiles. “I was excited. My whole family was excited.”

Filled with optimism, Brandon finished his last year of college and moved to Washington, DC to launch his career with EY. Life as an adult was just beginning, and he did everything he could to squeeze as much enjoyment out of every new experience as possible. He traveled for work, joined EY’s sports teams and was named Advisory Rookie of the Year. He was living life as a successful urban 20-something in the country’s capital city.

Memorial Day weekend 2014, Brandon thought, would be another chance to take in all life had to offer. With a group of college buddies and an EY co-worker, he traveled from Virginia, where he had been working on a client project, to a beach in Maryland. “What I thought [would be] just another vacation essentially turned into a life-altering event.”

A weekend of relaxation turned tragic with one fateful decision.

“I dove off a pier into shallow water. I came down on my head and I broke my T5 and T6 vertebrae, which left me with a spinal cord injury,” Brandon remembers. Immediately, he knew that his life would not be the same.

For what seemed like an eternity, he floated in the water before his friends pulled him to safety. Eventually he was airlifted to the hospital for emergency surgery. “I heard that my mom was on the line with one of the dispatchers in the helicopter, and I heard her in the background just trying to comprehend everything. That’s when it really sunk in,” Brandon says. Friends, family and even co-workers immediately rushed to Baltimore to support him.

The next day, he underwent surgery to remove the broken pieces of his spine and to insert titanium rods into his back. Brandon spent nine days in the ICU before being transferred to an inpatient hospital.

That’s when his recovery began.

In those first few bleak days, Brandon’s EY colleagues rallied to support him. Michael Poerksen, Tax Campus Recruiting Leader at EY, had recruited Brandon and developed a close professional relationship with him as he began his career. Michael immediately came to the hospital upon learning of the accident. “You go through all these thoughts—you want to see him be OK,” Poerksen says. “During the month of June, I made sure that I got up there on a weekly basis to check up on him. “

In the days following Brandon’s accident, doctors told him that he had just a 1% chance of regaining sensation below his injury site. Though he realized that his odds of a full recovery were slim, Brandon was not about to give up hope.

“When I first heard the doctor say it was less than 1%, I immediately thought: it wasn’t zero,” he explained in his typically buoyant demeanor. “So I’m just holding on to that 1%, that I could be that 1% to actually overcome this.”

In the meantime, Brandon has worked to create as normal a life for himself as possible, undergoing months of intensive physical therapy just to regain a sense of independence. Once the initial shock of the injury wore off, he wanted to get back to work—and the EY Accommodations Team immediately stepped in to help him achieve that goal.

He’s remained active outside of work, too, learning to use a hand-pedal chair to participate in the Marine Corps Marathon that he had signed up for prior to his injury, playing wheelchair basketball on Thursday nights and hitting the gym every morning the way he always had. He believes that even the Paralympics aren’t out of sight for him. “Staying active was really the way for me to get over this,” he says. “It was the way for me to get all the negative thoughts out of my head and push forward with life.”

Brandon also began doing advocacy work, serving on several diversity and inclusiveness panels with EY and working on charitable fundraisers. He worked with THON, a Penn State-affiliated dance marathon event that raises money for pediatric cancer research. It is widely recognized as the largest student-run philanthropic organization in the world. “Brandon was one of the two people at EY who really talked it up,” Poerksen says, noting that EY had the highest total donation level, largely as a result of Brandon’s fundraising. “I think that’s a testament to what he’s really all about—even when he has obstacles thrown at him he’s tackled them amazingly.”

More recently, Brandon flew to California for experimental surgery at the University of San Diego. He is one of just four people in the country to undergo the procedure, in which his surgeons removed the titanium rods from his back and injected 1.2 million stem cells into his spinal cord. While there is no guarantee that the surgery will offer any sort of recovery for Brandon, he has remained astonishingly optimistic.

In the interim, his EY colleagues, his friends and his family have rallied around him. “The support has been overwhelming at times,” he says. “Just to know that they care about everyone—it’s a good feeling to have.” At EY, many of his co-workers, he asserts, have become like a second family.

Despite the severity of his circumstances, Brandon is incredibly upbeat. He says that the injury has helped him find purpose in life—motivating and coaching people who may be facing adversity. “I really hope I am inspiring people and just getting someone who is in a situation like I am—no matter the disability—just to continue on with life,” he says. “If I can just inspire one more person each day, then I think I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.”