Brennan Overcomes Paralysis to Help Those Who Have Been Paralyzed
By Kim Piekos
Though he’s received last rites seven times, thankfully Lake Forest resident Chris Brennan is still with us.
It’s a good thing Brennan comes from strong stock; his father is Terry Brennan, a leading halfback on Notre Dame’s 1946 and 1947 national championship teams and head coach of the Fighting Irish from 1954-58. It turned out Chris was going to need to call upon that innate strength in 2014, when his life literally took a tumble.
“When you lose things, you gain perspective," says Lake Forest resident Chris Brennan.
At that time, Brennan was recently remarried and serving as chairman and CEO of TGI Systems, a global sports visual branding company for stadiums and arenas. A series of unfortunate events occurred – an accidental 25-foot fall down boulders in Sedona, Ariz., a subsequent bout with sepsis due to necessary pain medications that perforated his intestines, a spinal cord surgery gone wrong that left him paralyzed from the armpits down, eventual addiction to the pain medications from which he has recovered and additional surgeries for common complications like blood clots.
Ironically, his physical therapist at what was known as the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (now the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab) turned out to be a woman he had coached in soccer in Winnetka as a young girl. She placed the team photo on his lap to remind him of who she was and told him, “I’m going to get you walking again, Mr. Brennan.” He took on that challenge wholeheartedly and credits his ability to walk today with the aid of a cane or walker with work on a cutting-edge, anti-gravity treadmill and 3-4 hours a day of physical therapy.
“I didn’t want to be defined by being paralyzed,” Brennan said.
Brennan’s wife, longtime Lake Forest resident Diane Krapf Brennan, calls him the “Mayor of Villa Turicum” as he’s gotten to know many neighbors through his daily 2.5-mile walk around his neighborhood with his walker and dog, Luna. He can also be found riding his recumbent bike on Lake Forest bike paths in warmer months.
“I can’t thank Diane enough for what she’s done for me. Being a caregiver is not an easy task,” Brennan noted.
When Brennan was in the hospital “counting ceiling tiles,” he made a pact with God that he would start a foundation to help others facing similar challenges if he were to survive. He made good on that promise with the creation of the Brennan Rehabilitation Foundation, started in 2018 to provide financial support to individuals with tetraplegia (paralysis of the upper or lower body), total loss of all four limbs and torso along with other types of paralysis. It is estimated that more than 17,000 people survive a spinal cord injury each year in the U.S. and that they face medical expenses exceeding $500,000 in their first year of rehabilitation.
Recognizing himself as one of the “lucky ones” in many respects, Brennan established the Socrates Awards, which the foundation gives to 2-3 tetraplegics each year who best embody the mantra of the Socrates Creed: “Those who pursue a healthy mind and a healthy body in the face of adversity, such as disability and a long recovery, are amazing examples of people with true character,” Brennan said.
Recipients are awarded a $1,000 cash grant this year. Each year, the board determines awardee cash grants for the rest of their lives that support their continued efforts to be productive members of society. The recipients must use the funds for medical equipment, prescription medication, therapy or in-home care. This year, five 2021 Socrates Awards are being given at the Annual Meeting on Sunday, May 23 at Sunset Ridge Country Club.
“This experience has shifted my focus from myself to others,” Brennan explained. “When you lose things, you gain perspective. I have a much deeper appreciation for what’s around me now – my family, my friends, nature, animals --and I feel so grateful for it all.
“I was running on this treadmill of life thinking I was in control. All of that caused an imbalance in every aspect of my life – my personal, physical and spiritual life. Now I’m not concerned about being in control of anything. Ironically, now I’m on a treadmill just trying to walk! I’m very much at peace. I’ve tried my best.”
More information can be found at www.brennanrehabfoundation.org