Contractor Brian Lord was off the clock when he fell 16 feet from a ladder. He lives in Matthews near his parents and had offered to add tint to their second-story foyer window to soften some intense light angles.
“As soon as I get an extra day,” he told his mom, “I’ll come over here and I’ll shimmy up a ladder, and I’ll put some tint on there for you.”
Lord isn’t new to house projects. He’s been working in the flooring trade since he was 17. Now 44, Lord has focused his last few years of work on bathroom and kitchen remodels with different company partners. Showers and backsplashes have been particularly common projects. “I like to go in and see the before and the after,” Lord said.
Lord isn’t new to ladders either, but most of his solo ladder work involves climbs that are closer to six feet. Still, he felt good about the task at his parents’ house, so he went over one day in March.
From the exterior of the house, Lord said, “I got the extension ladder out, made sure it was secure, got up to the window, cleaned it, went down, went back up to measure it. As I was putting the tint in, I thought the tint was sliding off the window. But it was actually the ladder sliding off the wall.”
He rode the side of the ladder all the way down and slammed his tailbone into the ground.
“The feet just slid,” Lord said. “To this day, I still don’t understand why the ladder moved.”
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His parents saw it happen. Everyone was stunned for a minute. But Lord didn’t hit his head or land on his back, so he decided to walk it off.
“I thought it was ok,” he said. “I thought maybe I had bruised something.”
“Walking it off” lasted about two minutes. So did lying on ice packs. He felt pain in his mid-to-low back. “I couldn’t bend, and I couldn’t really stand up straight, either,” Lord said
His mom drove him to an urgent care, but as soon as that team heard how far he had fallen, they sent him to the Novant Health Mint Hill Medical Center emergency room. Lord was put into a bed shortly before midnight and told not to move. Tests showed that he had shattered his L1 vertebrae into three pieces. The L1 located toward the lower back, near the base of his rib cage. One piece was pushing up against his spinal cord. It’s known as a severe burst fracture. If he’d twisted or moved the wrong way, he could have paralyzed.
The rest was a medication-induced blur. He rode in an ambulance to Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center, where he met Dr. John Berry-Candelario Jr., a neurological surgeon with Novant Health Spine Specialists - Randolph Road. The care team quickly scheduled surgery for the following evening.
“Knowing that he was an active guy, knowing that he had a significant amount of pressure around his spinal cord, we really wanted to address this in one shot without having to delay his care,” Berry-Candelario said.
Berry-Candelario performed the surgery through the side of the body, removing the damaged vertebra and stabilizing the spine with a fusion technique. While the operation was not uncommon, it was not without risk.
“There are a lot of moments during this kind of surgery where you could cause very serious injury, so it requires a lot of caution,” he said.
It also required a lot of collaboration, from the team of emergency care providers, to the surgical team, to the nursing staff. “I can’t say enough about the opportunities we have at Novant Health to take care of patients like this,” Berry-Candelario said. “It takes a team effort in order to execute a plan as complicated as this one.”
After five hours of surgery, Lord transitioned into 11 weeks of rest, along with a physical therapy regimen. The resting period was mentally and financially tough for someone whose work depends on physical fitness. “I had people waiting for me to do jobs, who particularly wanted me to be there,” Lord said.
It didn’t help that Lord had been in the process of remodeling his own house when the fall happened. But there was one good thing: “I had already torn up the tub to build a walk-in shower,” Lord said. It was oddly convenient for someone who could no longer navigate a low bathtub.
But it wasn’t long before Lord got back to some small projects. “It really does get better every day,” he said. “The movement helps more than resting. I’ve been trying to keep my range of motion. I’ve also never been one to be afraid of things – I don’t want to limit myself if I can help it.”
Although someone else had to finish his parents’ window tinting project, Lord was busy with a full list of contract jobs again by June. “I’ve been back at it every day now,” he said.
That includes climbing ladders – but he stops at 16 feet.