Thirteen months ago, Jarrod Brodnax was a tough firefighter/paramedic for the Mansfield Fire Department, expecting his second child with wife, Melissa, and playing with his toddler, Maryn.
Today, he has paralysis in his left arm and leg, can barely hold his 6-month-old daughter and hasn't been able to work since January. An on-the-job injury led to three back surgeries and to a diagnosis the Brodnax family prays isn't true -- amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.
"We're looking for it not to be true," said Brodnax, 31. "We're putting our faith in God that it's something else, something that can be cured."
ALS is "a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord," according to the ALS Association website. "Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually leads to death. When the motor neurons die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. With voluntary muscle action progressively affected, patients in the later stages of the disease may become totally paralyzed."
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The news shocked the members of the Mansfield Fire Department, said Battalion Chief John Watson, president of Mansfield Firefighters Association, who were already planning a fund-raiser for the Brodnax family this weekend.
"It originally started just to help Jarrod and his family cover day-to-day expenses until he was able to return to work," Watson said. "Then we found out he got the diagnosis of ALS. Now, the need is much greater."
Lt. David Smith and his wife, Kelly, came up with the idea to sell T-shirts to raise money for the Brodnaxes a couple of months ago. Then the movement started to gain momentum and led to a benefit concert at Fat Daddy's in Mansfield. Justin Frazell of radio station 95.9 The Ranch is bringing his Texas Red Dirt Roads Radio Show, there will be live music, a silent auction and a bagpipe and drum corps.
"The outpouring of support is fantastic," said Watson, who is Brodnax's battalion chief. "We're getting e-mails and calls, people from everywhere that are wanting to do something. I expected there to be a lot of support for it, but I didn't really expect it to grow as fast as it has. Our goal is to get as much as we can to help the family. There's not really any way of knowing what their needs are going to be."
Although the city has gone "above and beyond" to take care of Brodnax, "Like all of us, Jarrod has part-time jobs," Watson said. "He did a lot of teaching. He hasn't been able to do that because of his injuries. That income that he was counting on is not there."
Even the family doesn't know what their needs will be. They never expected any of this when Brodnax was injured Nov. 26, 2010.
"We were on an injured person call with a 285-pound guy on the stretcher," he remembered. "We had him up in the air outside. I readjusted my leg and my ankle rolled. The stretcher started to fall so I bent over to catch the stretcher.
"I felt a pop in my shoulders and neck and tingling and burning down my leg," he said. "I thought I had a spinal injury or a slipped disc. About four hours later, I could hardly move my arms and legs, my muscles were cramping up."
He was told to go home after the injury, but didn't want to, said Capt. Steve Gutierrez, a trainer at Station No. 3, where Brodnax was stationed.
Brodnax was off work until Dec. 10, when he was cleared to return to work. He worked until Jan. 26, when the pain became intense.
"I started having lots of back pain and tingling in my neck, twitching in my shoulders and pain in my arms," he said. "We went to a neurosurgeon and he did MRIs and x-rays. I had slipped discs, one in my back and two in my neck. One was hitting the spinal cord."
One morning in February, he woke up and couldn't use his left hand.
"We were thinking it was something from the incident," Melissa Brodnax said. "We said 'Let's have the surgery and fix it.'"
On March 4, Brodnax had his first surgery. A few weeks afterward, an MRI revealed a bone spur on his vertebrae hitting his spinal cord and slipped discs in his lower back.
Brodnax had his second surgery April 27.
"Right after he came out, he complained of numbness in his left foot," Melissa Brodnax said. "Right after that, he developed foot drop. He went home on a walker."
Therapy helped, but a third surgery was scheduled Aug. 3 to put a steel cage in his neck and a steel rod to hold vertebrae after doctors removed a disc.
"The cage shifted after surgery so it's hitting the (spinal) cord," Melissa Brodnax said.
As he got progressively worse, the couple decided to go to UT Southwest in Dallas. Jarrod Brodnax had looked up other possible causes and been tested twice for ALS (both were negative).
"I didn't have all the signs of it," he said. "I was too young."
On Nov. 8, the couple learned the results were positive for ALS.
"We're looking for it not to be true," Melissa Brodnax said. "It resembles that, but our faith tells us that's not it."
Jarrod Brodnax and his father-in-law are headed to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., on Dec. 19-20 to get a more complete evaluation.
The family has been through a lot in the past year, including the birth of their second daughter, Larkyn, on June 15. Melissa Brodnax has continued to work as a labor and delivery nurse at Methodist Mansfield Medical Center with help from her mother and mother-in-law, who help take care of things at home while she is at work. Even holding his daughters is difficult for Jarrod Brodnax now. Not holding them is worse.
"That's been the hardest thing for me, not being able to take care of my kids," he said. "They're the love of my life."
And he misses his job and his co-workers.
"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger," he said. "I really miss being a firefighter. It's the best job in the world."
Amanda Rogers, (817) 473-4451