Like most teenage boys, Bradenton's Brian Billiter had no reason to know or worry that his T12 vertebra, the 12th thoracic vertebra in his spine, was protecting his spinal cord.
"I have always been a little ADHD, always jumping on walls," he said, humorously referring to the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder that prevented him from ever slowing down from an early age until he was 17.
But Billiter, who amazingly walked across the stage recently to receive his diploma at this year's Lakewood Ranch High School graduation, has now slowed down just enough to attain a new level of personal wisdom, a new regard and respect for doctors and physical therapists, for his body and mind, and a new sense of his life's purpose, all because of his 12th thoracic vertebra.
"They now call me the miracle boy because of my T12," said Billiter, whose family and friends either call him by his first name, Brian, or his middle name, Alex.
Events that occurred on Aug. 11, 2013, brought about this forever change in his life.
It all started with a '96 Dodge 4x4
Brian and his machinist dad, Michael, who together own Bradenton's M&A Customs, can turn anything ordinary on wheels into something special, Brian said.
The pair were putting a lift kit on Brian's red 1996 Dodge Ram 4X4 on Aug. 11.
Two jacks lifted up the rear end of the truck and Brian was underneath, sitting cross-legged, pulling the leaf springs out.
Suddenly, one of the jacks slid forward.
"I heard the jack sliding and the tires moving," he said. "I tried to move out of the way, but in the next instant the jack hit my back and the truck actually fell on me."
Brian screamed. Dad, who was nearby, lifted the truck up off his son in an adrenaline-fueled outburst, but it took Brian's sister, Kristin, 16, to pull him out from underneath the vehicle. He was paralyzed from the waist down.
"My husband blew all the muscles out in his shoulders and forearms lifting the truck," said Anissa Billiter, Brian's mother, who was inside the family home at the time. "I'm a nurse and when I went out, Brian was freaking out. He kept saying, 'Mom, I can't feel my legs.'"
Quick flight to Blake
Brian was flown by helicopter to Blake Medical Center where a computerized axial tomography scan (also known as a CAT scan) was taken of his back.
Within minutes, Dr. Kevin Boyer, a neurosurgeon from the Pinnacle Medical Group who is also on Blake's staff for spinal surgery, was reviewing the scans and came out to the trauma bay to meet Brian's parents with a serious look on his face.
"Surgery has to happen right now," Boyer told the family. "Alex's T12 is broken."
"I was in a state of shock," Anissa said. "Before that moment, I really felt that Alex would be fine. But when Dr. Boyer came out, the bottom dropped out of our worlds."
"The sheath that protects his spinal cord has been moved," Boyer told the family.
"Your son may not ever walk again."
Boyer said Brian's chance of regaining his legs was somewhere between 2 to 10 percent.
Anissa was devastated.
"My son is into motors and working with his hands," she said. "If he couldn't walk again, well, I just don't know. He was always hyper and has very mild Asperger disorder, which is on the autism spectrum. He was born premature."
After the family gave their consent, Boyer operated on Brian's spine for nearly seven hours.
"It was much worse than I expected," Boyer told the family when he emerged from surgery. "There were bone fragments literally everywhere."
Boyer told the family that Brian's T12 had actually exploded, probably from the jack slamming into it, sending shards of bone fragments like shrapnel everywhere throughout his spine.
Boyer replaced Brian's missing T12 with a metal plate, two titanium rods and 10 screws.
'I will walk again!'
Why do some patients with dramatic spine injuries walk again and others never do?
"The power of the human will is incredibly important," said Melissa Morgan, a Blake Medical Center spokeswoman who is familiar with Brian's case.
Brian woke up from surgery unable to move either leg but experiencing pain in both, according to a journal his mom kept.
"Alex has feeling from head to toe," she wrote in her journal on Aug. 12, the day after the surgery. "He was fit for a brace today. They may try to get him up to try to walk tomorrow. They are checking him every hour. He is very scared. He can feel when his legs and feet are touched but it is agonizing pain for him. Just moving the blanket makes him scream with pain even with tons of morphine on board. This is actually a good thing."
On Aug. 14, Brian took "two baby steps," according to the journal.
On Aug. 15, he took "five steps with Aaron Aiken, a physical therapist, from Blake's physical therapy department."
The journal also mentions the dedication of Mikki Wilhite, an occupational therapist at Blake who worked with Brian.
"Alex is back to speed mentally," the journal states on Aug. 15. "You can't shut the kid up. He still has a long road ahead of him to fully recover, but Dr. Boyer came back to check on him today and said he couldn't believe Alex was moving his legs! He said, 'I wish for a miracle for every one of my patients but what I see today is a miracle come true.' Dr. Boyer said he had been pretty sure it wasn't going to be a good outcome. Alex should be moving down to the second floor for rehab."
On Aug. 27, the journal reads: "I was told Alex walked 170-feet with a walker. But when I got into an elevator with my son he started bawling. He cried for 30 minutes. He told me the accident keeps playing back in his head randomly and he can hear his back cracking and he can remember the way our faces looked when we were getting him into the ambulance. He said he was worried about the bills and that we will lose everything and have to sell everything we own. I told him all that was not for him to worry about and that we would be OK. Despite his anxiety, it was a good day."
On Sept. 5, 2013, Brian was sent home.
Brian, now 18, looks back on those days in the hospital as having made him the person he is today.
"I kept having flashbacks of the accident, but now I am done thinking about it," he said. "My dad told me, 'Just think positive thoughts.' That's what I do. I think, 'Yeah, my dad and I will make our business even bigger and better.' I try to erase the bad from my mind and replace it with good."
Brian now works for APC Laser in Bradenton, as an all-around handyman. He plans on attending Manatee Technical Institute and studying welding or automotive service technology. He is able to walk, squat, bend and reach.
"Yoga is out and he still has a little hitch in his get-along, but it's barely noticeable," Anissa said. "I would say he has just about made a full recovery. We are thrilled."
The family praises Dr. Boyer and the Blake staff.
"I just got my nurses certificate and I want to work at Blake because of the loving way they took care of my son," Anissa said.
Michael is getting under the Dodge 4X4 for now and Alex is handing him tools. But Alex plans to be under the truck again soon.
"I still wake up in pain," Brian said. "I deal with it. I am supposed to be on medication. But I don't take it. I don't want to be dependent on it. I want people to hear my story because I don't want people to give up when they get injured like I was. I am positive there are people out there who could be walking but stopped trying when the pain got too bad. I want to tell them, 'I know it's a lot of pain but you can do it.' I kept saying, 'I will walk again. I won't give up.' That's what pulled me through."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @RichardDymond.