MONROE, La. (KNOE) - Matt Branch's daily swim features a small, but very appreciative cheering section. The former LSU and Sterlington offensive lineman is working to recover after losing his leg in a hunting accident over the winter.
Former LSU and Sterlington offensive lineman Matt Branch is working to recover after losing his leg in a hunting accident over the winter. (Source: KNOE)
"Little things are so special," Matt's wife Liana Branch said. "Just little things like Barrett saying, 'Daddy.'"
"It just means so much more to me now because I was so close to losing all of that," he said.
"There were times I didn't know if he would even know his daddy at this point of life.," Liana said.
In December of 2018, the Branches were in midst of celebrating their first Christmas with their son Barrett.
"It was almost like we got one little family day of peace before the storm hit."
It arrived on December 28th.
Matt, the avid hunter, set his sights on bagging his limit.
"We woke up that morning thinking it was just a regular morning like any other day we've gone out and duck hunted," Matt said.
But it was not Matt's typical day in the blind.
"When I looked down and saw the hole in the ranger and realized it was right by my leg, I fell to the ground and I screamed out 'I've been shot y'all, I've been shot.'"
In rural Mississippi, friends and emergency personnel scrambled to save Matt's life.
"That's when...the first time that I coded was when I got in the back of the ambulance on the way to the hospital," Matt said.
"We were under the impression that there had been an accidental gunshot, and that it was going to be minimal [damage], maybe stitch him up and take the bullet out and go home kind of thing," Liana said. "That was the impression I was under."
Matt remembers what was going through his mind at that moment.
"The last thing that ran through my mind before I had passed away for the first time was just Barrett and Liana and thinking that I may never see them again," Matt said.
"I knew once we met with the first surgeons who came out of Vicksburg and they said they had done everything that they could, and they had tears in their eyes and were crying, and that we were going to airlift him, I knew at that point this is very serious and it continued to kind of spiral from there," Liana said.
"Obviously, after I had been shot, my thought wasn't, 'I'm going to lose my leg,'" Matt said. "My thought was, 'I got to fight for my life.'"
"And then at one point the doctor came out and said, 'It's life or taking his leg,'" Liana said. "I just had to sign off on it. That was the best we needed to do for Matt."
"And when I woke up and realized I was going to be okay, that's when the hurt of losing a limb sank in on me," Matt said.
Twelve surgeries and 300 units of blood later, Liana said "the vascular system was completely obliterated."
Matt tried to comprehend the significance of his injury.
"You know, just all the thoughts running through my head, 'What is my life going to be like,'" Matt said. "What am I going to be able to do?"
After a month in intensive care, Branch's motivation came rolling into his room.
"It was awesome," Matt said. "He had grown so much. He immediately came up to me and give me a hug. It was a special moment for sure."
After spending 57 days in the hospital and getting sized for a $75,000 prosthetic leg, it was time to sink or swim for Matt.
"I got out there and I swam like two laps and I thought I was about to drown," Matt said. "It was killing me. I couldn't breathe."
This first of countless, breathless moments as the former LSU offensive lineman devised a new game plan.
"I kind of treat this process no different than I treated that," Matt said. "This is grind every day, because this is not easy walking on a prosthetic leg."
Branch defied the odds by living and now, one step at time, he's making sure he's not defined by a statistic.
"I think only about three percent of all amputees are hip disarticulation and, I mean, how many of those hip disarticulations are 6'6" and formerly 300 pounds," Matt said.
Through his rehab, Branch has refused to tire.
"I've tried to continue to strengthen my core," Matt said. "Shoot, I'm about to have a six-pack. It's crazy I never thought I'd have one of those."
Branch's core and his family's faith are as strong as ever.
"I prayed and prayed and prayed we would have this," Liana said. "And we're here and we have it. So, I'm just very grateful."
"I'm the boss," he said.
Barrett may be the boss, but he won't have to look far for a role model.
"I just enjoy this time I spend with them so much more now, because it just means so much more to me," Matt said.
Barrett's mom knows their son will really appreciate his father's strength once he gets a little bit older.
"I really think that he's just going to be really proud once he realizes how extreme the injury was and how his dad picked up and really carried on with life for him, for us," Liana said. "He did not dwell on it. So I think he's going to be very proud when he knows the whole story one day."