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His will is finding a way

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Months after being paralyzed, Tom Babb using his arms, pushing the limits

By Deb Hurley Brobst

DENVER — Delightful. Determined. Competitive. Funny.

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Those terms are used by the staff at Craig Hospital to describe Tom Babb, the Evergreen 19-year-old who was paralyzed in a freak accident while on a family vacation in Hawaii last December.

Tom has come a long way since his family found him after a wave had knocked him over in the ocean. He landed on his head, shattering a vertebra in his neck. While doctors originally thought he might be paralyzed from the neck down, he now can move both arms and is in therapy to gain more function.

“In a word, delightful,” occupational therapist Gail Ward said of Tom. “He’s also really competitive, which is helping in his rehabilitation program. He’s gone from starting to use his arms to functionality, which is a huge improvement.”

Tom is beginning to feed himself, and for the first time last week he brushed his teeth. He no longer wears a neck brace.

“His level of determination has been unsurpassed,” said speech pathologist Karen Engstrom. “When we have discussions about what (functions) can come back and not come back, he’s realistic. He asks, ‘How do you do that without hands,’ and we show him.”

With adaptive technology, Tom can play video games — and win. With the help of Siri, he can use his cell phone to keep in contact with friends and family. Other voice-activated technology also helps him perform everyday tasks.

Funny? He loves what he calls “wheelchair jokes,” making fun of having no use of his legs. He says he does it just to see people’s reactions because they aren’t sure whether he’s joking or serious.

Tom will be leaving Craig Hospital later this week and heading home, with his mom, Christa, as his primary caregiver. The house needed minimal changes to make it wheelchair accessible, and the family converted a used van so his wheelchair can be locked into the back.

“At the beginning, we were in a fog and didn’t know what day or week it was,” Christa said. “Now it’s April, and days move one at a time. I still have a lot to learn (about taking care of Tom). I didn’t think the day would come where I would be ready for him to come home, but I’m ready.”

How does he stay so positive despite his life-changing disability and his new reality?

“For a while I had a bad attitude,” Tom said. “Then I started to laugh at myself, and I decided that I needed to stay positive.”

He also attributes his resiliency to the 10 months he spent as a foreign-exchange student in a small town in Spain during his junior year in Evergreen High School.

“It was horrible at first,” he said. “They didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Spanish. I had to learn to adapt, and by the end, I loved it.”

His rehab is challenging; sometimes he’s in a lot of pain and there are days when he doesn’t feel well, but Tom perseveres through it all. He and his family know the challenges that lie ahead, but with family, friends and their faith in God, they are ready to face the new reality.

Tom is ready to move on with his life.

Back to school

Tom is looking forward to going back to college. He had just finished his first semester at the University of Kansas in Lawrence before the family vacation in December. He plans to take a calculus class at Metro State University of Denver this summer to get the hang of going to class, taking notes and using a computer.

In the fall, he will return to KU, living in his fraternity house, Beta Theta Pi. His fraternity brothers have embraced Tom and his disability in every way possible, and they are converting a first-floor room for him to use.

On April 24, Tom will travel to Lawrence to participate in the TomStrong 5K, a fund-raiser to help paraplegic and quadriplegic students attend school. Tom said so far 500 people have signed up to participate, and it will in all likelihood be the largest philanthropic event organized by a KU fraternity or sorority.

Tom hopes he will have his new wheelchair by then, which will have a top speed of 7.1 mph. He wants to peel out from the starting line, stop and wipe his brow as if he’s worked hard to get there — another testament to his sense of humor.

Christa said KU officials have been very accommodating in helping Tom return.

Before the accident, Tom had planned to be a business/marketing major. Now, he’s considering other possibilities.

“I have a real interest in learning about the body, my body,” Tom said. “I might go into a medical field.”

A social life

Tom goes on field trips or has visitors nearly every day while at Craig Hospital. He readily admits that he’s very social, so he’s out and about as much as possible: at the mall, the zoo, the Denver aquarium and sporting events, and he went home for Easter.

Friday morning, as Tom was on his way to be fitted for his new wheelchair, a man wearing a KU sweatshirt, probably in his 40s and in a wheelchair, was entering the hospital.

They stopped and spoke for a few moments, the man telling Tom that he had a diving accident two days after graduating from high school. He graduated from KU after the accident.

They joked that they were part of the Craig Hospital diving team.

Diving injuries seem to be pretty common. Christa said there were two other patients at Craig Hospital at the same time who had similar accidents in Hawaii.

Every patient has a story to tell, and they share to help each other cope with their new realities. Tom gets visitors from his fraternity, from current and former patients, and from Evergreen.

Regarding Evergreen, Christa is amazed by the support: emotional, spiritual and practical.

“I thought at first, that’s really nice, and it would last a couple weeks,” Christa said.

But the support continues three months after the accident.

On April 6, Tom went to a Denver Nuggets game, and Oklahoma City Thunder players Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook took the time to meet him, and since he didn’t have paper for autographs, they signed his face. He was thrilled.

Tom has made friends at Craig who are in similar situations. They joke, talk sports, play video games, talk about girls — just guy stuff.

A good friend, Tyler Foster of Arvada, was paralyzed in a car accident, and Tyler left Craig about a week ago. Now they talk about life outside the hospital — in addition to the Rockies home opener and the Nuggets.

Craig Hospital

The hospital is renowned for its work with spinal-cord and traumatic-brain injuries. It has state-of-the-art equipment to help patients with improving mobility and function.

While the facilities are impressive, what’s even more impressive is the positive, upbeat attitude. From the therapists to the nurses to the staff, there is a can-do attitude, and encouragement is everywhere. The Babbs have been pleased with all of the therapy and support Tom has received.

A typical day includes four to five sessions: occupational therapy, physical therapy, work on upper-body strength, lower-body strength and use of computers.

Last Friday, after an hour on a treadmill that moves his legs to exercise the muscles, Tom was in occupational therapy, and his arms were strapped to what are called skateboards. He moved his arms forward and back, then from side to side, to build up the muscles. Weights can be added to make the work more difficult.

He likens trying to move his legs to a person trying to move one eyebrow at a time. Try as you might, for most people, the eyebrow doesn’t move. He also says that when he’s moving, it sometimes seems like floating because he can’t feel his legs.

The walls of Tom’s room at Craig are filled with autographed calendars of the Denver Broncos cheerleaders and the University of Kansas dance team, Broncos and Colorado flags, and photos from his fraternity.

In the corner near his bed is a plaque with a saying:

“Be strong when you are weak.

Be brave when you are scared

Be humble when you are victorious

Be badass every day.”

Contact Deb Hurley Brobst at deb@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1041. Check www.CanyonCourier.com for updates.