THOMAS E. SMITH'S STORY
If every person was to write their own story up to this point in their life, I believe it would be written about their values, decisions, and goals. Every change, whether driven by good or bad fortune, ends one chapter in life and begins a new one. I am fully aware that the ending of this book results from the individual's response to these changes.
My story begins with my dream of becoming a professional hockey player. Admittedly, my mother and father planted the seeds for this dream by teaching me to skate when I was four years old on a local pond. My first opportunity to skate with a team arrived at the age of six. I knew that I was in the right place the moment that my skates touched the ice. The next years included youth hockey, high school hockey, and then Junior A hockey after graduating from high school. My goal was to play at the collegiate level and then professionally. Then, "bad fortune" struck. On August 2, 2008, when rushing for an opposing player who had a breakaway, I caught him at the last second, but my skates caught the helmet of my goalie as he came out to play the puck, and I was sent in the air headfirst into the boards.
The impact from hitting the boards paralyzed me and I was rushed to a hospital in Methuen, Massachusetts. There the doctors found my condition to be so severe that they ordered a helicopter to airlift me to Boston, Massachusetts. However, severe thunder and lightening storms prevented the transport of patients. When this message came in, I was immediately rushed to Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston by ambulance. I spent five days in Beth Israel Hospital before being transported to the Spaulding Rehabilitation Center. I spent fifteen days in Spaulding before being released to home. My diagnosis was spinal shock and bruising along my spinal cord. I was able to walk, but with bad spasms and convolutions.
After being released from Spaulding Rehabilitation, I arrived at the Shaughnessy Kaplan Rehabilitation Center in Salem, Massachusetts. I had an amazing therapist at Shaughnessy Kaplan. Her husband was involved in a spinal cord accident so she was very in-tune with everything that I was going through. Unfortunately, Shaughnessy's facility is in no position to offer spinal cord therapy treatments for people who are severely injured. After I had spent three weeks in the programs, my therapist called my mother and warned her that if I did not seek alternative treatment, that I would undoubtedly be in a wheelchair within two years. Doctors commonly agree that a spinal cord patient's first six months of rehabilitation are crucial because of the swelling. By working to reduce swelling in the first six months, the chances for recovery are greatly increased. Doctors say that a patient has two years before the swelling drowns the nerves and they cannot be restored for bodily functioning use. My family and I knew we had to act fast. I had a doctor's appointment the following week and we were eager to see what he had to say. This appointment is unforgettable. I had one of the leading spinal-cord doctors from Beth Israel Hospital look into my parents and my eyes and tell us that within two next years, I would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of my life. We left his office before he started another sentence. It was now a frantic hunt for someone who had a connection to a specialized spinal-cord treatment center. My prayers were answered in a matter of two weeks.
My "good fortune" was the response from my family, including aunts, uncles, and cousins. My parents' constant lessons for my brother and me were that the vehicle for the highest quality of life was commitment, diligence, and avoid procrastination. My parents and brother responded to my accidents by immediately revealing all those qualities. Their support and encouragement gave me the strength and motivation to cleanse myself of the pending self-pity and to resume my fight for success, although in a much different arena. Then, my uncle rose to the challenge and through a friend connected me to the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis Center. No medical center offering this center's specialized treatment for patients like myself existed in New England. In fact, the local doctors already discussed with my family and me my preparation for life in a wheel chair.
When I headed down to the Miami Project, I received unexpected news. I was diagnosed with having a hangman's injury along with sublux-dislocations to four cervical vertebra. After gathering myself together, I promised myself that I would not stop until I walk again.
I had a daily routine. I drove one hour (Delray Beach to Miami) to therapy, spent three-four hours doing intense therapy, drove 1 hour back to Delray Beach, did a aquatic therapy routine for 2 hours in my brother's pool, and then went to the local Gold's Gym for 2 more hours to work on my balance and strength. By the end of the day, I was exhausted. However, because of this rigorous routine, I was able to regain my walking, limbs and movement. The doctors told me I would take years to recover, if recovery occurred at all. I arrived in Miami on October 25, 2008; I left Dec. 22, 2008.The Miami Physical Therapy Team enabled me to resume control of my body to the level of testing as the best physical specimen on my Junior A hockey team. However, the greatest lesson came from the other patients. I met the most courageous people whose hopes still shine bright despite being challenged by overwhelming physical disabilities. I learned the culture among people needing wheelchairs and their daily obstacles and frustrations. These people motivated me and allowed me never to feel sorry for myself. I promised myself "not to whine, not to complain and not to quit." The people in Miami were so inspiring that I knew I could not abandon these people.
I had a rigorous training routine that I put myself through during the summer of 2009. I thought that another spinal cord injury could never happen to me. Five doctors, including the co-founder of the Miami Project, Dr. Barth Green, assured my family and me that I was no more susceptible for another spinal injury than anyone else. However, on October 1, 2009, it happened again. I skated around the net in practice when my skates caught my teammate's skates. Instead of sliding into the boards feet first which I've done hundreds of times, my feet got stuck, my upper body kept going, and I hit the right side of my head on the boards. I was airlifted from Salem, NH to Boston Medical center where I was diagnosed with injuring the T-3 vertebra. The thoracic vertebras are located in a different section of the spine than the cervical vertebras. The doctors said that they have never heard of anyone having two separate spinal cord injuries and both having nothing to do with one another. No damages were found in the cervical part of my spine. Doctors told me that if they were the doctors in Miami that they would have signed off on me. They said I had nothing to worry about when I chose to return to the ice and that this is a one in a hundred million case. After overcoming the initial shock of the situation, I decided to take this second injury for what it is worth. My second accident emphatically confirmed that I knew my life's mission.
Everyday that I spent inpatient at Boston Medical Center and everyday that I go to therapy, I see a person who is worse off than I am. I promised myself after my second injury that I would speak with new "F words" and not the negative, unproductive "F word" that is so commonly used in society today. My new "F words" are: "Family", "Faith" and "Friends". Those three commitments are truly all that matter in life. I want to live my life being the best I can be at all three of these "F words."Currently I am dedicated to building a foundation to serve spinal-cord research, awareness, and well being. Through laying the groundwork for this foundation, I have taken the opportunity to speak as an advocate for patients with spinal-cord injuries, as well raising awareness around spinal-cord trauma to people of all ages, athletes at all levels, and corporate officials. I am as comfortable with this mission as I was the first time I skated on the pond.