In a few days, Brandon Hsu will be able to check off a big accomplishment: He’ll receive his doctor of physical therapy degree from the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy, ranked No. 1 for physical therapy graduate programs by U.S. News and World Report.
Hsu, who will soon work to help others push against physical problems, had to battle his own to get this far.
The story starts during Hsu’s freshman year at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He came home for winter break and his mother noticed he was pale and had lost weight.
Hsu, known for his happy-go-lucky spirit, didn’t think much of it. He was just excited about college.
“I didn’t care how I physically felt, but I knew I would have fun the next four years,” Hsu, 26, said.
His mom took him to get blood tests, and on Christmas Day, he was diagnosed with leukemia.
“My form of leukemia had a high cure rate so I went about living my life pretty happily,” he said. He took a year off from school and underwent chemotherapy.
Cramps and pain
About five months after his diagnosis, he started getting cramps in his legs that he couldn’t shake. The pain was excruciating.
In the emergency room, his speech started to slur and he lost feeling in his legs. His fever shot to 107. He soon found out he was experiencing encephalopathy, a rare side effect to chemotherapy that he was told only about 1 percent of patients experience. Doctors decided to induce a coma. A week later, he woke up.
“I couldn’t move anything in my body except my toes,” he said.
He also couldn’t talk. At first, he used his toes to communicate with his parents. Later, the use of his hands returned, and he was able to point to a list of commands.
“It took me two months to make a sound,” he said. After about three months, he could stand. A month later, he was using a walker.
“I remember climbing the sidewalks was a big accomplishment,” he said.
He was told the road ahead would be hard.
A neurologist came by one day after I woke up from the coma and said that I will never be normal again. I cried for three days.
“A neurologist came by one day after I woke up from the coma and said that I will never be normal again,” he said. “I cried for three days, but then I had to get over it and move on. That was her opinion.”
Determined to make it back to Johns Hopkins, he practiced walking and things like using a key — skills he would need living on his own.
“I really thought I could go back Day 1 after waking from the coma,” he said. “I didn’t really want the diagnosis to affect me. I’m just a kid who just so happens to have leukemia, who can’t talk, who can’t walk.”
And after doing rehab during summer and fall, he returned to school in January 2011. He had more time for tests, but besides that, he didn’t change the way he worked as a student. He graduated with a BS in molecular and cellular biology and a minor in psychology.
USC physical therapy grad doesn’t surprise his friends
Sometimes Hsu feels crazy for being able to push through something so difficult. But his friends aren’t surprised. They think it’s his personality and demeanor that’s allowed him to get this far.
“I think he’s well able to see the bigger picture,” said Ari Baquet, a fellow DPT candidate. “Whereas sometimes the stress of an exam can take you over a bit, I think he was an early adopter of whatever is stressing you out is no bigger than it is – it’s not life.”
He’s known as sort of a class clown.
“He laughs all the time. That’s probably what he’s best known for,” said classmate Brianna Bacich. “If you get him giggling, it just progresses. … We’ve identified the levels of it, he’ll rub his chin a bit, hit his knee.”
It inspired a hashtag and his Instagram handle, @Brandontstoplaughing.
Entering this field isn’t necessarily easy for someone with Hsu’s challenges, whether it’s his speech impediment or gaining back motor skills.
Before Hsu started at USC, faculty members talked about how to tackle communicating and working with him, said Daniel Kirages, associate professor of clinical physical therapy.
Hsu often uses a phone or iPad to help him talk to friends or faculty. For example, to do this interview, we used Facetime and, for anything that was hard to understand, he typed into a Google doc.
“He wasn’t offended if someone asked four to five times to repeat something,” Kirages said.
Learning to work without supervision
Physical therapists have to be able to see patients alone without supervision. Physical therapist Keri Pegram mentored Hsu at a UCLA clinic internship, making sure he always had his iPad on him so that his speech impediment wouldn’t prevent him from working on his own.
“Going through this internship, I told him you have to do what everybody else does,” she said. “He’ll probably admit I wasn’t easy on him.”
Hsu uses a text-to-speech app on an iPad when working with patients. He also can demonstrate the physical exercises to help.
He’s very caring and very compassionate. It comes across and it’s something you can’t teach.
“The common thread that people will say about him is he’s very caring and very compassionate,” she said. “It comes across and it’s something you can’t teach.”
For Hsu, pursuing physical therapy was a relatively recent decision, based on the desire to pay back everything physical therapists and occupational therapists have done for him.
“They gave me a new life and from that new life, I am put in this awesome position to help others hopefully get a new life,” he said.
Relating to patients
He can still relate to patients, as he continues to do occupational, physical and speech therapy. Hsu, who used to play basketball and badminton, has dreams of running and jumping again.
For now, he’s a weightlifting fanatic. Gaining strength gave him a sense of control over his body after feeling he had lost it entirely.
“During my treatment, I did not feel like I had ultimate control of my body. When I was introduced to the gym, it was like I entered paradise,” he said. “Once I began to see results, I was hooked.”
He wants to eventually open a gym with a physical therapy clinic inside.
Looking in the mirror, he sees a six-pack — and a scar. It’s on the left side of his chest and was used as a portal to deliver medications and perform blood draws. It’s an everyday reminder of that time.
“I see myself now, I see the progress I’ve made,” he said. “I don’t want to stop.”