His bare feet perched on the top of a tailgate, Dillon Brown grabbed a rope swing tied to a limb dangling above a pond. With the rope taut, he jumped and let the power of gravity swing him in a downward arc over the water.
Dillon and a group of about eight friends were weeks away from plunging headfirst into college. But not yet. The sun was bright, the water was refreshing, and they were soaking up a carefree summer weekend.
Dillon flung his body into the air for a double backflip. He had meant to let go when the rope was supplying upward momentum, but his hand clung to the rope a split second too long. His momentum slowed as he released the rope and started his dive. After the first backflip, Dillon realized that he wasn't going to complete his second rotation, so he bailed.
The lost momentum at the top of the swing prevented Dillon from reaching the deeper water. So the water beneath him was just waist-deep as he flopped awkwardly, hitting the muddy surface with force.
His friends on the shore noticed Dillon's ungraceful entry, but they weren't concerned -- at first. Skateboarders, surfers and soccer players – they had witnessed hundreds of wipeouts. But when Dillon didn't surface after a few seconds, Will Winstead rushed into the water.
Dillon was in a crouched position and motionless under the water. A hand waved in the murky water in front of his face, and all Dillon could think to do was bite it.
Despite the instructions from his brain, his legs refused to stand; his arms couldn't even flail. Biting was his way to signal for help.
Will, Braden Parent, and a few other friends, understanding the precarious nature of a neck injury, lifted Dillon from the water and carefully carried him to shore. Dillon calmly instructed them to call 911. The New Hanover Regional Medical Center VitaLink rescue team was dispatched immediately.
Braden then called Dillon’s dad.
Dr. Alan Brown, an eye surgeon, received the call as he was driving to church.
"Dillon's alive," Braden said. "But he's been in a serious accident."
His friend held the phone to Dillon's ear, and Dillon apologized to his dad. No father needs to hear the news that his son is paralyzed, Dillon said later.
He's been in a horrible accident, Alan thought. But he's not dead. He can talk.
As he processed the devastating information, Alan reached a crossroads. There he made a decision: Before he went to see Dillon, he would stop by The Refinery Church just long enough to ask his fellow parishioners to pray for his son. As the ambulance’s siren wailed a few miles away, Pastor Mark Tippett led his congregation in a prayer for Dillon's recovery.
The Browns are a family of deep faith, and whenever they see an ambulance with its lights on, Alan said, they pause to say a prayer.
Emergency Transport, Delicate Surgery
Alan arrived at the scene to find a group of panic-stricken young adults watching the VitaLink ambulance pull down a sandy road away from the scene. As he followed the emergency crew toward NHRMC, Alan hoped that somebody on the road had paused to pray for that stranger in the ambulance – his only son.
Before Dillon arrived at the hospital, the VitaLink team contacted on-call neurosurgeon Adam P. Brown. Fourteen minutes after the 911 call was placed, Dillon arrived at New Hanover Regional Medical Center.
Dillon remembers arriving at the hospital, where he was met by his mother, Debbie. She offered only encouragement.
"You're going to be fine," she calmly, convincingly told her son as he was wheeled into the Emergency Department. "If you have any thoughts that don't agree with that, don't let them into your head."
Dillon believed her words, and so too, did Debbie. Even today, Debbie can’t explain the calmness she felt.
Her son -- high school soccer player, accomplished surfer, self-taught guitar and piano enthusiast, excellent student -- had just broken his neck. Yet she believed that Dillon would be all right.
Dr. Adam P. Brown – unrelated to Dillon’s family -- had reviewed the first CT scans from his home and noted that Dillon had broken his neck at the third, fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae. Often, a break in the C3, C4 and C5 vertebrae indicates a life of paralysis from the neck down, depending on the damage to the spinal cord.
Dr. Brown rushed to the hospital to examine Dillon. He found no movement below the neck, but he did see one glimmer of hope. Because Dillon could feel sensations in certain areas of his legs, Dr. Brown ordered immediate surgery. Just 66 minutes after initial contact, the NHRMC surgical team moved Dillon into the operating room.
With the NHRMC trauma surgery team, Dr. Brown prepped for surgery. Every time the team needed to reposition Dillon, the move was orchestrated with extreme precision. One tiny move could increase the pressure on Dillon’s spinal cord and decrease his chance of having a successful surgery.
“The damaged areas were not getting enough blood or oxygen, so we had to relieve the pressure on the spinal cord without actually touching the spinal cord,” Dr. Brown said.
First, the team laid Dillon face-down so that Dr. Brown could approach the spine from the back to realign and stabilize it. After that precarious surgery, the team turned Dillon onto his back so that Dr. Brown could remove the crushed C4 vertebra through the front of the neck. Even after he inserted a graft to replace Dillon’s vertebra, Dr. Brown couldn’t be confident that Dillon would ever walk again.
Alan and Debbie spent a long night in the waiting room at NHRMC as Dr. Brown and his team performed the four-hour operation. The grim reality of the situation faced the Browns. Their son might never walk again, might never feed himself, might never have children. But the Browns relied on the faith of their friends and family, the talents of an experienced, gifted neurosurgeon and the dedication of the NHRMC staff.
Debbie found enough peace to sleep for a couple of hours, but Alan didn't sleep at all.
When Dillon was stable, the Browns were allowed to enter their son's room. They were hopeful for a sign that Dillon would recover. Dr. Brown tested to see if Dillon could feel any sensation on his arm, in his torso, on his thigh. Blink once for yes, twice for no. And when Dillon was asked to wiggle the toes on his left foot, those toes responded to his brain’s instructions.
Knowing that recovery was possible, the Browns celebrated at Dillon's bedside.
Complete recovery was not guaranteed, but following the successful surgery, Dillon’s odds of walking again had improved. Still, Dr. Adam Brown cautioned Dillon's family about the pace of recovery.
“Medical evidence suggests that patients with Dillon’s injuries often don’t walk for 18 to 24 months. And when they do, they often need a walker or cane for support,” Dr. Brown said.
But Dillon and his family had faith and determination on their side.
Dillon, a 2014 graduate of Coastal Christian High School, accepted every goal as a personal challenge.
Each day, he said, he felt new sensations.
“A different part of my body comes to life every day,” Dillon said. “One day, my hands thawed out. Then my stomach came alive. And then it was like, ‘Look at these cool new legs that I’ve always had.’”
After a week in intensive care, Dillon moved to the NHRMC Rehabilitation Hospital. Dr. John Liguori, Medical Director, infused Dillon with hope and affirmation. A team of rehabilitation specialists presented him with challenges and goals, and Dillon did the rest.
“From the moment he left the intensive care unit, he gave us a thumb’s up and said he wanted to work to get better,” Liguori said. “In emergency care, the ABCs (Airway, Breathing, and Circulation) are vitally important. When the focus of Dillon’s care changed to Rehab, the D (diet), E (exercise), and F (family) elements helped him progress at a remarkable pace.”
A high school soccer player and surfer for the Sweetwater Surf Shop team, Dillon has fitness magazine abs, so he understands what the body is capable of and how much hard work it takes to achieve goals. And his family was completely dedicated to his recovery.
“The family was amazing,” Dr. Liguori said. “They were always available, but they didn’t interfere.”
Dillon’s parents inspired him and enlisted the prayer support of thousands. His youngest sister, Carly, brought him toys and games that encouraged him to push the limits of his sensory abilities. His sister, Kari, and her husband, Jason, edited a video of his recovery underscored by a moving rendition of “How Great Thou Art” that turned into a viral sensation.
Documenting Dillon’s story
Without understanding why, Alan Brown was compelled to film the ambulance as he trailed it to NHRMC. That video was the first of dozens the family took as they documented the milestones in Dillon’s recovery. They filmed his first toe wiggle – a sign of hope after surgery. On his final day in intensive care, they filmed him making a “shaka” hand sign and smiling broadly to let his friends know he was on his way to recovery. They filmed his first precarious steps, with physical therapist Lorraine Kerr sliding underneath him on a rolling chair and a wheelchair positioned to catch him if he fell backward.
There was another important milestone that wasn’t caught on film. In the days following his first toe wiggle, Dillon felt discomfort and asked his dad why it hurt … down there. He was referring to the catheter, and Alan was delighted because that was an indication that his son would be able to have kids some day.
In 18 months, medical evidence suggests, the majority of patients with injuries similar to Dillon’s might regain some movement. Instead, on the 18th day after surgery, Dillon walked unassisted for the first time.
Dillon was discharged from NHRMC on August 23, the day before N.C. State University began classes. Though he was making phenomenal progress, Dillon wasn’t ready to live alone, or even to walk across campus on his own. Plus, he would be studying industrial design, which requires a steady hand. Dillon’s professors at N.C. State made provisions so he could join his classes in progress without having to skip an entire year.
At home, Dillon followed Dr. Brown’s and Dr. Liguori’s strict discharge instructions. He always wore his neck brace, limited the strain on his neck, and continued to improve his motor and tactile skills. He made small gains in strength and dexterity– slicing through a stick of cold butter, flipping a pen and catching it in his hand, brushing his teeth without jabbing himself in the gums. And he also retrained himself to do some of the things he loves. He picked on his guitar, he played the piano, he finished building a custom gas-powered mini-bike … which he didn’t ride, of course.
On August 30 – one month after the accident, Dillon walked a mile with his mom. He didn’t resemble an athletic surfer or high school soccer player. But he looked even less like the paralyzed teenager on the operating table at NHRMC, unsure if he’d ever walk again.
The magnitude and astounding pace of his improvement is not lost on Debbie.
She summed it up on the website dedicated to Dillon’s story: “His recovery has been like drops of hope that turned into a downpour of daily miracles!”
Five weeks after breaking his neck, Dillon was ready to live on his own.
On September 6, still wearing his neck brace, he confidently walked up the front steps to Leazar Hall, effortlessly pulled open the door and began the pursuit of his college degree at the Industrial Design School at N.C. State.
To see the latest on Dillon's progress, please visit Dillon's Miracle.