Chris O’Brien’s Surgery

Chris O'Brien's motto in life is "StaySteadyStuntin" which means to stay awesome.

Chris O’Brien’s motto in life is “StaySteadyStuntin” which means to stay awesome.

Editor’s Note: In high school, Chris O’Brien of Trumbull, Connecticut, was one of the best swimmers in the county. After graduation, he joined the swim team at College of Charleston in South Carolina and quickly climbed the ranks his freshman year. When he wasn’t studying, he was in the pool training. He never would have believed that his love for swimming would almost cost him his life. Part 3 of a 5 part series.

The last thing Chris O’Brien remembered after breaking his neck in a swimming accident was screws being drilled into his head to support a halo brace. “I woke up the following afternoon after arriving at the emergency room the night before,” O’Brien reports.“I was heavily sedated, and I remember seeing my parents and my brother. I could feel all my body parts, but my legs tingled like they’d fallen asleep, and I couldn’t move my legs or my arms.” O’Brien remained in the halo brace for 2 weeks before he finally had any surgeries. “I was told I had broken my neck at the C4 and C5 vertebrae and damaged my spinal cord,” O’Brien says. “The doctors originally told me they wanted to keep the halo on for 3 months to stabilize my neck before doing surgery. But after 2 weeks, they decided to go ahead and operate, because my neck still wasn’t stabilized. The doctor told me that they would go in through the front of my neck, remove my C5 vertebra that had shattered and replace it with a titanium cage. The C4 vertebra was split in half, and the doctors planned to use a metal plate and two screws to fuse it together. They explained that by going through the front of my neck there’d be less damage to my muscles.”

On the day of the operation, O’Brien only remembers rolling down the hall toward the operating room. When he woke up, the doctors had removed the halo brace, and he was wearing a neck collar. O’Brien says, “They told me, ‘Your neck is stabilized, but the surgery had no effect on what your outcome will be as far as regaining function. We should have a better idea of how much function you’ll have in 18 months.’ When you damage your spinal cord, one of two things usually happens. You either bruise it, or you cut it. If you sever your spinal cord, you don’t have nearly as good a chance (if any at all) of getting function back. However, if you bruise your spinal cord like I did, doctors don’t know what’ll happen, and what you’ll get back. So, I made the mental decision to get all my function back. I thought that if I worked really hard, that eventually I’d get all of it back, and I still believe that today.”

Chris believes being in a wheelchair is only temporary, and expects to eventually regain full function.

Chris believes being in a wheelchair is only temporary, and expects to eventually regain full function.

On the swim team, O’Brien could overcome any of his problems with practice and time. He knew that all he had to do was work hard and push his body past the pain, and he could achieve any goal he set for himself. He equated that philosophy and mindset to recovering from a spinal-cord injury. But O’Brien learned that shaving seconds off the time required to swim from one end of the pool to the other end was much easier than teaching his arms to move, his fingers to wiggle and his legs to walk.

To learn more about Chris O’Brien, visit his Facebook page at

Next: Quadriplegic Chris O’Brien Treats Rehab Like Swim Practice

About the Author: For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at

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