Brian’s life was turned upside down when he suffered a spinal stroke in 2011 and was left paralyzed. Now, he’s on an inspiring journey to improve the lives of others with spinal cord injuries.

News | 4 years ago

A Spinal Stroke Can’t Slow Brian Down

Brian’s life was turned upside down when he suffered a spinal stroke in 2011 and was left paralyzed. Now, he’s on an inspiring journey to improve the lives of others with spinal cord injuries.

At 53 years old, Brian Muscarella was an active, healthy man in the middle of a successful career as a financial manager. But then one day in 2011, Brian felt some weakness in his arms and legs and was admitted to the emergency department.

To Brian’s shock, it turned out he was suffering from a rare injury known as a spinal stroke, which left him suddenly paralyzed.

“This kind of injury involves a loss of blood supply to the spinal cord,” says LaTanya Lofton, MD, a spinal cord injury medicine specialist at Atrium Health’s Carolinas Rehabilitation. “We don’t know why Brian had this type of injury — it just happened spontaneously.” 

Although the injury was abruptly life-changing, Brian wasn’t ready to slow down. “I was determined to turn this difficult situation into something positive.”

Brian’s family, friends, and care team were about to learn just how resilient a man Brian Muscarella is.

Hands-on care and revolutionary technology

Brian was admitted to rehab just a few days after his stroke. Since he had significant paralysis in his arms and legs, he was put on a course of occupational and physical therapy that would help him build strength, endurance, balance, and coordination.

“Right away we saw that Brian was a highly motivated patient,” says Dr. Lofton. “He’s one of those people who’s always committed to going above and beyond.”

Although Brian had significant physical limitations, he began making some dramatic strides. While initially he had severe weakness in his arms, he slowly regained a significant level of function in his upper body. Although he isn’t able to walk, Brian’s strides only grew larger once he started using the Lokomat Robotic device, a revolutionary spinal cord rehabilitation technology that enables patients to work on their gait pattern and mimic walking using a treadmill and the assistance of one physical therapist.

Thanks to great care from Carolinas Rehabilitation team and innovative technology, Brian gained more and more independence — and he wanted to do even more.

“I realized I had this ball of energy inside me,” says Brian. “And I knew I had to do something with it.”

Channeling energy into great causes

For Brian, going the extra mile meant getting involved in causes that raise money and awareness for people with spinal cord injuries. He became a major advocate for Carolinas Rehabilitation's Adaptive Sports & Adventures Program (ASAP). 

“When I first saw a rugby match with the adaptive sports program, I saw real community in action,” says Brian. And he immediately wanted to step up his game physically and compete alongside this group of people who were refusing to let their injuries slow them down.    

This is when Brian’s now-legendary sense of motivation kicked in. He decided to take part in the 180-mile cycling fundraiser known as Cycle to the Sea from Charlotte, NC to North Myrtle Beach, SC. With help from a dedicated support network of friends and family, Brian raised nearly $250,000 over the past seven years for the rehab center that has given him so much.

“There are times where it gets really tough out there during training and I have to ask myself ‘Why am I even doing this?’” says Brian. But then he remembers: “We’re out there to raise awareness. That’s what it’s all about.”

Helping others live life to the fullest

While Brian’s dedication to fundraising has changed lives and turned his injury into a platform for good, it’s also empowered him in his personal life.

“I sometimes think of my 5-year-old granddaughter,” says Brian. “When I suffered this injury I never thought I’d be able to pick her up in my arms. Now I can pick her up from school and care for her independently. She doesn’t see me as ‘Poppy who’s in a wheelchair.’ She just says sees me as Poppy — and it’s been a powerful learning experience for her.”

And that isn’t the only young person whose life has been improved thanks to Brian. He also went to Lourdes, France to work with the Order of Malta, a Catholic group that undertakes various humanitarian efforts. Brian, along with five other volunteers, cared for a malade — the French term for an ill or disabled person. While volunteering, Brian caught the eye of a group of disabled children. A fellow volunteer overheard the children saying that Brian’s presence helped them realize that they too could come back to Lourdes someday to volunteer. Like Brian, their disability doesn’t have to hold them back.

“Brian has used this injury to catapult him into different parts of life,” says Dr. Lofton. “It’s helped him make a massive impact in philanthropy and sports. He’s just an incredible, resilient person.”

And with the completion of this year’s Cycle to the Sea race in April, Brian continues to inspire people to turn difficult circumstances into something positive.


To learn more about Brian and 2019 Cycle to the Sea, visit his personal CTTS page.