Physical therapy grad uses his own physical battles to fuel his career
Leukemia and a rare side effect of chemotherapy didnt stop Brandon Hsu; instead, they inspired him
In a few days, Brandon Hsu will be able to check off a big accomplishment: Hell 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 Hsus 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, didnt think much of it. He was just excited about college.
I didnt 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 couldnt 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 couldnt move anything in my body except my toes, he said.
He also couldnt 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 didnt really want the diagnosis to affect me. Im just a kid who just so happens to have leukemia, who cant talk, who cant 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 didnt 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 doesnt surprise his friends
Sometimes Hsu feels crazy for being able to push through something so difficult. But his friends arent surprised. They think its his personality and demeanor thats allowed him to get this far.
I think hes 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 its not life.
Hes known as sort of a class clown.
He laughs all the time. Thats probably what hes best known for, said classmate Brianna Bacich. If you get him giggling, it just progresses. … Weve identified the levels of it, hell rub his chin a bit, hit his knee.
It inspired a hashtag and his Instagram handle, @Brandontstoplaughing.
Entering this field isnt necessarily easy for someone with Hsus challenges, whether its 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 wasnt 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 wouldnt prevent him from working on his own.
Going through this internship, I told him you have to do what everybody else does, she said. Hell probably admit I wasnt 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.
Hes very caring and very compassionate. It comes across and its something you cant teach.
The common thread that people will say about him is hes very caring and very compassionate, she said. It comes across and its something you cant 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, hes 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. Its on the left side of his chest and was used as a portal to deliver medications and perform blood draws. Its an everyday reminder of that time.
I see myself now, I see the progress Ive made, he said. I dont want to stop.