(Brett pictured with Sophia)
By Mark E. Smith
When I meet fans of WheelchairJunkie.com in-person, they always have a million questions. However, almost everyone asks one specific question, word for word, “Is that guy, Brett, on the message board, crazy?”
“Absolutely nuts,” I confirm. “I’m waiting for him to mail me his severed ear like Van Gogh.”
Of course, in real life, Brett isn’t crazy in the least – but, he is among the most inspired individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing, where he quietly strives to empower those around him, making his community a better place in the process, day after day, no matter how his life has changed.
I’m not sure how long I’ve known Brett, but my first encounters with him must have been seven or eight years ago. And, I’ve been a fortunate witness ever since to the powerful life journey that he’s lead.
In 1991, Brett was graduated with both a B.S. in biology and a B.A. in art, going on to pursue a doctorate in neuroscience. In 1997, his education goals were achieved, earning a Ph.D. from Temple University. And, in-between, Brett pursued his passion for teaching, pointing to a likely path as an inspired young professor.
However, as you, yourself, may know, there are no certainties in life, no guarantees that if we simply work hard and live well, we are assured of calm futures. For Brett, this reality was presented in the first-person when, in 1997, just one week before receiving his doctorate, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
By 1999, Brett used a wheelchair and scooter, facing the progressive realities that many with M.S. experience. As I knew Brett through correspondences and meeting up with him at expos, I saw that there were obviously tough changes occurring in his life, the ebbs and flows of romantic relationships complicated by disability, the realization of losing portions of his independence, and the necessity to make changes in his living arrangements due to his progressing condition.
Yet, the more Brett’s life changed, the more focused he became, finding safe harbor in his two truest foundations, religion and art. It was these two passions that compelled him not to let M.S. slow him, but to inspire him. In the 10 years since his diagnosis, Brett has become a fixture in the M.S. community. Not only has he played a key role in championing 21st-century awareness for M.S., voicing the need for more research and a cure, but he’s a tireless volunteer and participant at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where he helps lead the art-wellness program and raises funds through such activities as an annual M.S. Walk team. In fact, in 2007, Brett embarked on the acclaimed Faces of M.S. Mask Project, an art endeavor in which participants created plaster masks of their own faces, painted as an expression of themselves in light of the disease. Of course, with such a positive outlook, it’s no wonder that Brett is a sought-after speaker, including delivering keynote addresses at M.S. conferences.
Personally, Brett is an artist in the truest sense, his paintings coming from within, the canvas calling him, a passion that is a bit hobby, therapy, study, and vocation mixed in, recognized by galleries, showings, and patronages. And, when not volunteering or working on his art, Brett practices a deep devotion of faith, leading prayer groups and singing in his church’s choir – a clear source of his inner-strength.
Of course, Brett will tell you that much of his success comes from his not being alone on his journey, with unyielding love and support from his parents and family, as well as his best friend, Sophia, his extraordinary German shepherd service dog who’s always by his side as confidant, partner, assistant, and cheerleader.
Despite the countless lessons that Brett’s zeal teaches many of us, what strikes me most of all is that his life prove among my own foremost beliefs: Life doesn’t always work out the way we want, but if we have faith, it does workout exactly the way that it’s supposed to – that is, presenting us with opportunities to learn, grow, and empower, making a difference in the lives of many others along the way.
In the New Year, let us all strive to follow Brett’s lead. Let’s not dwell on what we’ve lost or don’t have, or concern ourselves with what unwanted life changes may come our ways next. Rather, let’s draw upon our strengths and passions, and allow them to lead us toward making a difference in our our own communities and in the lives of those around us. Let us know that although we may not be able to control what happens to our bodies, with dedication, fortitude, and perseverance, we can control the impact that we make in the world – an impact that offers understanding, hope, and empowerment to others.