In November 2011 Greg Burkett came to fully grasp the lack of guarantees in life.
On a night that November Burkett fell from his bed.
His forehead struck a nightstand, hard.
Burkett immediately knew it was bad.
“I knew I couldn’t move my arms, my legs, anything,” Burkett said. “I knew it was serious but I didn’t know how serious.”
He laid there in his bedroom next to that nightstand for 10 hours, not moving.
In hindsight the willingness of Burkett’s brain to listen to the language from his – don’t move – likely saved his life.
A friend, concerned that Burkett did not show up for work the next day found him, or actually heard his cries for help, when checking Burkett’s Port St. Joe home.
He was rushed to Sacred Heart Hospital on the Gulf where it was determined Burkett suffered a broken neck.
He was quickly en route to Bay Medical Center.
That day, after being prepped for surgery, Burkett’s doctor was stark with Burkett’s family – no guarantees Burkett would survive surgery.
And if Burkett survived the surgery, there were no guarantees he would not be paralyzed, relegated to learning to live in a wheelchair.
For more than a week, Burkett, heavily medicated had little clue about his condition or prognosis.
When he was lucid enough, his doctor remained just as blunt as with his family.
“He could not guarantee anything,” Burkett said.
Over the span of 18 months there have been seven more surgeries and rehabilitation from each and every one.
He was relegated full-time to a wheelchair.
He has, his doctor described, a “condominium” for a neck.
Much of it prosthesis with his upper vertebrae steadily growing around and to it.
He spent months with a halo attached to his head, unable to move his freely, unable to sleep other than upright.
“That I wouldn’t wish on anyone,” Burkett said.
His family, he said, “sacrificed a lot.”
Two brothers and two sisters helped transport Burkett to and from to doctor’s appointments in Bay County three to four times a week.
They looked after him, took him in.
With the help of a home nurse, who still comes three times a week, they helped Burkett has he regained control of his bodily functions.
“It affects every part of your body,” Burkett said. “I didn’t realize how much.”
In time, he moved onto HealthSouth in Bay County for rehabilitation.
The staff at HealthSouth encountered a fighter.
“They really tend to rehabilitate you to acclimate you to be in a wheelchair because that’s where they think you are going to be,” Burkett said. “I wasn’t going to stay in no wheelchair.
“When people started telling me what I couldn’t do, that is when I decided I could.”
He drew inspiration from Wounded Warriors, such as those who visit Bay and Gulf counties.
He listened to televised speeches and read written words from those warriors who had survived horrific injuries and somehow found the purpose to rise above limitations.
“I kept hearing, ‘You are as disabled as you want to be,’” Burkett said.
He transitioned from HealthSouth to Sacred Heart on the Gulf to continue his rehab under the direction of Kimberly Thomas.
“She would get me out of that wheelchair and we’d walk and walk,” Burkett said. “I came there in a wheelchair and I came out walking.”
Thomas, Burkett said, is the reason he is now riding a bike five miles a day, had whittled his medications from nine to two and is working with weights three days a week at One Way Fitness Center.
Burkett spent eight months under the care of Thomas, who pushed, cajoled and celebrated each milestone.
Burkett said he also took inspiration from friends and neighbors, folks in the community who reached out and put him on so many prayer lists at churches.
And two months ago, Burkett walked stiffly into One Way and began a workout routine.
“I couldn’t put any weight on any of the machines,” Burkett said. “I used to be 275 pounds and I was down to 180. My legs, you could see the bones they were so skinny.”
Now, they have the appearance of fire plugs. From no weight on the leg press Burkett now pushes 300 pounds. He does a full circuit three days a week, working his arms, his legs, his core muscles.
“I never would have thought I’d be doing this,” Burkett said. “But after the first month I knew the sky was the limit. I don’t like anybody telling me what I can’t do. But I will tell you, this has been hard work.
“There have been a lot of days I get out of bed and said no I ain’t going in there. But the improvement gives me encouragement. As long as you see improvement that keeps you going.”
While he still has nerve issues with his hands – one operation at Shands was unsuccessful due to a staph infection and Burkett has another scheduled next year – he can open anything he wants.
He is a “self-sufficient cook.”
He has returned to one of his great loves fishing.
“They used to say I was the best at throwing a cast net in the county,” Burkett said, his face brightening when recalling the first time he set a hook with a cricket. “I can still throw it, but I can’t turn it loose.”
Burkett is philosophical about the journey of the past two years.
There has been education.
“I needed something like this before it happened,” Burkett said. “This was absolutely a walk-up call for me.”
And he is trying to find sense for others from the tragedy of similar circumstances.
There is the young man from the community who recently broke his neck in a freak accident.
Asked by his father to speak to the young man, Burkett did, telling him nothing will hold him back but his own will.
The father called last week to say the son had his best week of rehab – ever.
“I’m trying to give back what the community gave me,” Burkett said. “I can tell people things nobody else can tell them because I have been there.
“I am a walking miracle. You can’t give up and you can’t let people tell you what you can’t do. Every night I thank God I am laying down and every morning I am thanking God I am getting up.”