"I know it could be this way forever"
Seattle Times staff reporter
VANCOUVER, Wash. — Brandon Powell gallivants about the world inventing new tools, conquering faraway lands, building an empire.
He does it with a computer game called Civilization III, in a virtual world where Powell spends much of his time these days.
In real life, the former Fort Lewis soldier remains nearly as motionless as he has for the past two years — since the day in Mosul, Iraq, when a sniper's bullet cut through his neck and left him paralyzed from the chest down.
"I just play games and keep my mind off life," Powell, 22, said last week.
The Seattle Times first told the story of Powell and his caregiver, younger brother Blaine Powell, last March. The story triggered an outpouring of supportive e-mails and offers of help from readers who admired Brandon for his courage and Blaine for his brotherly love.
Brandon still suffers from severe neurological pain. He's put on some weight this year, but looks reasonably healthy. And something seems to have shifted. He appears calmer now, a little more accepting of his quadriplegia and the way his life has turned out.
"I hope for the best, but I always know it could be this way forever," he said.
He's even started painting.
He uses his mouth to dip a brush into his palette — a paper plate atop a stack of books on his lap. He's brightening his collection of MechWarrior action toys with finely detailed stripes and camouflage patterns.
Blaine remains Brandon's primary caregiver — hoisting him out of bed, showering him, feeding him, emptying his catheter and checking for pressure sores.
The brothers and several roommates share a home Brandon bought in Vancouver near where the Powells grew up. Brandon pays his bills with the Veterans Affairs benefits he'll receive for the rest of his life.
Blaine, who celebrated his 21st birthday this month, has filled out physically and seems more mature in other ways.
He finished rebuilding his Honda Civic into a souped-up racing machine complete with turbo-charged engine. To the relief of some of his friends, he stopped tearing around city streets in his car and began competing in quarter-mile events at a Portland racetrack.
Borrowing a deposit from Brandon, he bought a used Lexus for everyday driving. Brandon, meanwhile, bought a modified van with a wheelchair lift this month for his own transportation.
Dinner at the brothers' home is typically Taco Bell or pizza, and entertainment comes via a new 50-inch flat-screen TV. The house is filled with the bustle of their young roommates and friends, one of whom often helps care for Brandon when Blaine works his part-time job stocking shelves at a local Safeway.
Together, Blaine and Brandon have taken on another caretaking duty: looking after their 8-year-old half sister, Sarah Plaisted, before and after school, while their mom is working.
"I really like to spend time with them a lot," Plaisted said, looking at her big brothers. "Ever since Brandon went into the Army, I barely got to see them since then."
Brandon's ability to maneuver in cyberspace has been vastly improved with the addition of some high-tech gadgets. A computer camera trained on his forehead enables him to move the cursor on the screen as quickly as an able-bodied person simply by nodding or shaking his head.
And a program called Brainfingers uses sensors strapped to his head to pick up tiny electrical signals created by facial movements. So far, Brandon uses Brainfingers to click his mouse, but he hopes to gain more control over the signals and use the program for a wider variety of tasks. He also substitutes voice-activation software for a keyboard.
He's been using the Internet to research stem-cell therapy and its potential to treat paralysis. He's fascinated by the work of a Portuguese doctor, Carlos Lima, whose quadriplegic patients have reported increased mobility after treatment.
Brandon has tried e-mailing the doctor, but hasn't gotten a reply so far.
Even without new treatment, Brandon has experienced some limited improvement in his right arm — he can move it a few inches side-to-side now, although he has no fine motor control.
VA doctors say that if the progress continues, he might eventually be able to control his wheelchair with his hand rather than his chin, which might be more comfortable and would enable him to navigate over bumpier terrain.
More immediately, his brother Blaine really wants to drive a quarter-mile in under 10 seconds. And Brandon would like a bigger, more powerful computer that can transport him to distant places even faster than that.
Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or
Information in this article, originally published December 26, 2006, was corrected December 27, 2006. In a previous version of this story, a photo caption incorrectly said Powell is paralyzed from the waist down. He is paralyzed from the chest down.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company