You can apply a lot of different labels to Brian Gomez, now 28, but maybe the most apropos appellation is fierce competitor.
When he played linebacker at Damien High School for four years, he was always in the thick of the scrum. He applied the same warrior mindset to his studies. After completing Damien, he went on to the University of Arizona, where he graduated with a degree in business operations.
Now he is banging heads in the incredibly competitive specialty coffee business, which makes up approximately 55% of the overall $48 billion-and-growing coffee market in the United States. Locally, you’ll find him rain or shine every Saturday, selling his roasted specialty coffees at the La Verne farmers’ market.
Like every entrepreneur with a dream, he faces a great many obstacles in taking his business to the next level, but there are a few challenges Brian deals with daily that not even the most industrious businessperson can appreciate without being in his shoes.
Brian is a quadriplegic. A little more than five years ago on Aug. 21, 2011, Brian broke his neck riding his dirt bike in Lucerne Valley, a sport he had enjoyed since he was six years old.
“It was just a casual ride,” Brian said, leaning back in his wheelchair inside his San Dimas, Calif., home. “It was just a family ride.” No big jumps, nothing daring. It was like a passing league scrimmage played without football pads. Nothing serious.
But his newly rebuilt motor malfunctioned as he was flying over a ridge, causing rider and bike to separate. He couldn’t wheelie out, and after he landed, the bike bounced and landed on him. “The motor cut out at a high RPM, and I found out at a bad time,” Brian said.
Sounds like all the elements of a lawsuit? But if people expected Brian to sue the mechanic’s shop responsible for rebuilding the motor, that tempting consideration was never in the cards.
“I just don’t give them a referral,” Brian said, referring to the mom-and-pop shop that changed his life forever.
That’s when you realize Brian, who could be so bitter about his current situation, has a sense of humor and has long since moved past the blame game.
Instead, he prefers to play the long-game, laser-focused on the future — not the past, not what might have been.
Fierce new challenge
Toward that end, in May 2016, he became one of the first patients in the world to have an electrode stimulator implanted along his damaged spine – near the C-5 vertebrae in the middle of his neck, the area most commonly associated with quadriplegia, the loss of function and feeling in all four limbs.
In addition to the stimulator, his UCLA doctors inserted a small battery pack and processing unit under the skin of his lower back, which Brian will control via a small remote to regulate the frequency and intensity of the stimulation.
“The spinal cord contains alternate pathways that it can use to bypass the injury and get messages from the brain to the limbs,” said Dr. Daniel Lu, an associate professor of neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and director of the school’s Neuroplasticity and Repair Laboratory. “Electrical stimulation trains the spinal cord to find and use these pathways.”
The approach used by the UCLA doctors is unique because it is designed to boost patients’ abilities to move their own hands, and because the device is implanted in the spine instead of the brain.
The technique essentially gets the nerve signal to behave like a driver who avoids rush-hour traffic by taking side streets instead of a busy highway.
“If there is an accident on the freeway, traffic comes to a standstill, but there are any number of side streets you can use to detour the accident and get where you are going,” Lu said. “It’s the same with the spinal cord.”
But Brian almost didn’t get the option of choosing that alternative route. He had to undergo two years of evaluations by UCLA scientists before they decided he would be a good candidate for the experimental surgery.
“In many ways Brian is a perfect candidate for this experimental treatment,” Lu said. “He still has head-to-toe sensation, so he can give us feedback as we fine-tune the stimulator. And he is such a positive and motivated young man.”
It’s especially the latter – Brian’s mental toughness and willing attitude – that recommended him for the surgery. His record and resolve after his devastating accident proved that.
About a year after his injury, he went to work for a Rancho Cucamonga-based steel company, his first real job after college. Although office-bound, he learned how to read blueprints among other technical skills.
“I probably went to work a little too soon, considering I was in a wheelchair, but I wanted to show people I wasn’t a liability,” said Brian, who regularly would have to wake at 4 a.m. to be at work at 6 a.m., a regimen of bathing, brushing and dressing that required the full involvement and participation of his family.
At work, it was a touch-and-go for a while, with his colleagues always wondering whether he was going to fall out of his wheelchair or suffer other mishaps.
“I felt lucky anytime I made it into my chair safely,” Brian recalled. “I got lucky that I didn’t get hurt.”
Being the businessman, Brian also knew he needed a contingency plan. In his junior year in college, he had wandered into Savaya Coffee Market, a specialty roaster and brewer across from his condo in Tucson. He discovered a love for Harrar coffee, an Ethiopian coffee, which developed into a full-blown romance with the entire bean-to-brew, coffee-making process. With savings from his paycheck, Brian began investing in various coffee beans and tools of the trade, including a basic home coffee roaster. He eventually worked his way up to the Rolls Royce-style roaster he owns today, which is capable of roasting 11 pounds at a time in a specially built room Brian designed himself.
Operating a roaster has provided Brian with new challenges. He once burned himself on the roaster while pulling a lever after the beans had been toasted. The likelihood of that kind of accident recurring have greatly diminished as Brian has gained greater strength and dexterity as a result of his UCLA treatments.
The UCLA team’s goal is not to fully restore Brian’s hand function, but to improve it enough to allow him to perform everyday tasks. Specifically, the UCLA researchers evaluate hand strength by a unit of measure called a newton.
“A normal hand is able to impart about 100 to 200 newtons of force, but after an accident, that often drops to only 1 or 2 newtons of force,” Lu said. “Our goal is to get these patients back to the 20 to 30 range. That will make a huge difference in the quality of their lives.”
That level of improvement, Lu said, would help people with everyday tasks like tying their shoelaces and brushing their teeth — or, in Brian Gomez’s case, holding a cup of coffee that he roasted and brewed himself.
Because the experiments have shown so much early promise, Brian hasn’t missed one of his twice-weekly appointments with his UCLA doctors, despite a two-hour commute to the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Westwood and a sometimes three-hour trek back to his San Dimas home.
“It takes a lot of time and commitment to do this, but I’m determined,” said Gomez. “Things are about to change for the better, so I’m excited about what’s to come.”
Maybe what Brian is most excited about is competing again. In February, he will be entering his roasted beans in a regional competition in Austin, Texas, with the winners advancing to the international competition in Seattle, Wash. He also wants to develop an app that will allow his customers to pick up their purchases within minutes of their order. Eventually, he also would like to pair himself with a barista with whom he would become partners and open a coffeehouse.
“As a former athlete, I want to compete again at the highest level,” he said.
As a former athlete, Brian also knows that given his injury he couldn’t have picked a tougher opponent. At the same time, he has seen signs that he can turn things around. He believes that one day, with his ongoing treatments, he will be able to uncurl his fist and flash a thumbs-up sign. He hopes that that same kind of coordinated movement can pass to his legs.
“There are a bunch of possibilities,” he said. “My body is supporting it. Will I stand up, sit down? I see that being possible.”
Brian’s signs of improvement are all the more remarkable given that his experimental treatment didn’t begin until five years after his injury.
“There currently is no effective treatment for spinal cord injury, and for those who lose function of their hands, any meaningful improvement a year after injury is extremely rare,” said Lu.
But Gomez appears to be that extremely rare individual.
He’s an over-achieving, over-caffeinated community hero who is high on life and has shown amazing fortitude in the face of such a life-changing accident.
At the very least, he deserves the community’s constant support and our purchases at his weekly coffee mart at the weekly farmer’s market.
If you can’t wait that long, you can reach out to Brian at (909) 967-7112 or firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is Theroastedbeanllc.com.