Some of Don Bratton’s clients at the Downtown YMCA have had to think twice before complaining to him about the difficulty of their workouts.
It’s not that this certified personal trainer is a drill sergeant-style taskmaster. Rather, clients take a look at Bratton’s 215-pound well-muscled body, his left forearm supported by a crutch, right leg in a shoe lift and his neck marked with a quarter-sized, bullet-wound scar, and they realize difficulty is a matter of degree.
“I don’t shame people into working out,” he says. “I just hope that I can be an inspiring force for them. If they see me working out on the bike, lifting and swimming, maybe they’ll be motivated.”
Or at the very least, motivated to sweat out that last rep, as Bratton himself doesn’t miss a day’s workout. He rides an exercycle every morning for cardiovascular conditioning, swims in the YMCA pool, stretches the half-paralyzed muscles on his left side and faithfully strength trains.
Three freak accidents — resulting in a leg broken in five places, a bullet through his spinal cord and a right frontal lobe brain injury — have forced changes in the 38-year-old’s life. But they have not changed what makes Don Bratton who he is, and what he remains passionate about.
“Before the first accident in 1980, when I was a junior at Bryan Adams High School , I was always doing something athletic,” he says. “Running, biking, baseball, sandlot football … you name it.”
That all came to a screeching halt when a driver, whose view was obscured by a van, broadsided Bratton as he rode his motorcycle home from baseball practice. His femur was shattered in five places.
The damage was so extensive, it took him three years to both rehabilitate his leg and graduate from high school. Afterward, however, fitness again resumed its importance in his life. Bratton ran after classes at Eastfield College before heading to work at a local Steak & Ale restaurant.
But in effect, he was unconsciously training for yet another hurdle that would further morph his body and test his determination.
In March 1983, during an attempted robbery in the Steak & Ale parking lot, a gunman put a gun to Bratton’s nose and pulled the trigger, allowing a .22-caliber bullet to rip its way through his right nasal septum and strike two of his vertebrae.
“I suffer from hemiplegia, not to be confused with paraplegia,” he explains, while gesturing to his left shoulder blade. “Paraplegia is this way — up and down — while hemiplegia is left and right.”
The guy has a natural gift with people, putting them at ease yet teaching at the same time. He throws medical jargon like “aphasia” and “ataxia” in the conversation, but is also quick to explain in a lighthearted, non-condescending tone, “by that I mean difficulty modeling words.”
But it was his final accident, in 1994, that challenged him the most. While driving, a doughnut tire flew off a car in front of him, smashing into his windshield and forcefully striking him in the left temple.
When he awoke from a coma 21 days after the accident at the Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation, doctors learned the extent of the damage. His brain was struggling to process information, and Bratton was forced to relearn basic skills such as getting dressed, eating and shaving. The damage also compromised his speaking ability and left him with a severe defect in muscle coordination in his left arm and leg.
He still has trouble forming words, which results in occasional slurred speech, but little else slows him down. In the scope of a few minutes, a spirited Bratton hunts down a YMCA exec, chastises a visitor on her upper-body strength, introduces her to his colleagues, and peppers the conversation with jokes about needing a hot tub for his social life.
Amazingly, the brain injury made Bratton more determined to seek out a meaningful career after he could no longer work as an airplane mechanic. As part of his recovery, he spent one semester in a class for brain-injured adults at Richland College . The experience inspired him, and he began taking regular college credit classes toward a career in helping people like himself.
“I knew that I could be a personal trainer for those people who have a physical challenge,” says Bratton, who also now works with clients who are mentally disabled.
Unconsciously, Bratton motivates those around him. Not surprising after all he has been through, he delights in feeling his muscles work, his heart pump and the buzz achieved after a good work out. And that passion is infectious.
“He really is inspirational,” says Ted Beyer, a personal training colleague at the Downtown YMCA. “When I first met him, without knowing his story, I immediately thought of him as this great motivator. Then, when I found out what happened to him, it strengthened that observation even more.”
Bratton takes a philosophical and spiritual approach to hardships that have come his way, never forgetting the simple joys that make life wonderful.
“I love going to the dog park at White Rock,” he says. “It’s just so great on a beautiful day being out there with people and their dogs.
“The three bad injuries that happened to me have allowed my mind, body and spirit to be perfectly equipped for the service in life that I am called to do,” he says. “My faith has allowed me to discover a purpose and meaning in my life.”
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