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David Thomas

This year marks the 35th anniversary of my accident and as long as it’s been is how long I’ve been asked how it happened, well if you've ever wondered here's what happened. I didn't write this to see how many likes or comments I could get, I did it because I have found writing very therapeutic. This didn't take hours or even weeks to write, it took months because it involved having to think back to a time that I hadn't thought about in a long time.

August 24, 1985 was a Saturday and I was at home in Bogalusa. Normally I’d have been at the campground, where I’d spend most of the summer working, swimming, skiing, boating and just having a blast, but school was getting ready to start and marching band practice had already started. I’d spent the day with my friends riding bikes and playing outside but it was late afternoon and we were all in my backyard. The oak tree there still had remnants of my tree houses in it plus a few different types of swings. A tarzan swing and regular swing made out of old fire hoses Daddy had gotten from the mill and the newest, a trapeze style swing. It was made out of yellow nylon rope with a garden hose over it to protect it from the metal pipe used as a handle. I was swinging on it and as I’d get to the top I’d kick my legs and swing all the way around the bar. Sometimes I’d stop halfway and just hold on upside down as I swung backwards; it was while doing this that the rope broke. It happened so fast I can’t really tell you what happened or how I landed. What I know is everything just pasted before my eyes in a blur and then I’m on the ground. I was on my stomach with my head turned to the right with my arms up by my head, I yelled for help but it came out as a whisper. Danon was the first to come over to me and he started to roll me over but I told him no, I knew something was seriously wrong but wasn’t sure what.
Now in my 15 years I’d done some stupid things,
I cut a tree halfway then climbed up and had someone cut it the rest of the way so I could ride it down only to have the tree fall on me.
I’d made a bike ramp too steep and when I jumped it I did a backflip and landed on my back.
Dropped out of the same tree with the tarzan swing with too much slack so that instead of swinging, I dropped onto my knees.
This was just to name a few, a very few. And the 2 things different about this time and all the others was
1, pain! All the other times I was in a lot of pain and
2, laughing, all the other times my “friends” were laughing.
This time neither of those things happened.
I told Danon, not to move me and go get my mother, that would be another thing that was different, I had never, no matter how much pain I was in, told anyone to get my mother. When she came out all I could do was say, “I’m sorry!” over and over.
As I said there was no pain, I felt nothing below my chest, nothing! It was as if it was gone. The only thing I did feel was some burning sensation in my triceps. And I could barely breathe. So they called 911 and the ambulance came. They secured me to a papoose board and rolled me over, then put the color around my neck and taped my head to the board also. Then loaded me up and took me to the medical center. There they did some x-rays but I was going to have to go to a bigger hospital that was more prepared to deal with this. The ambulance driver wanted to drive me to east Jefferson hospital but my mother said no and told them to call Ochsner and have them send the helicopter. By the time the chopper got there it was dark and I was a little excited about flying over New Orleans in the dark but the chopper crew pissed me off cause they wouldn’t roll me a little so I could see out the window.
No one could fly with me so my parents were gonna have to drive down, in the mean time I was there by myself. When I got to the Ochsner ER the doctors and nurses would talk to me, telling what they were going to do before they did it and one of the first things they told me was that they were going to have to cut my shorts off, “damn!” I thought, “This sucks!” I’m 15, naked and in the emergency room, throw in a math test I haven’t studied for and my nightmare is complete.
So anyway they go about what they are doing, talking to me the whole time
“David, we are going to pick you up and move you to this bed, ok?”
“David, we are going to have to roll you to get this sheet under you, ok?”
“David, we are going to take some blood so you might feel a stick, ok?”
“David, we are going to put in an I.V, ok?”
“David, we are going to insert these screws into your skull, ok?”
“Ok….wait!...WHAT? You want to do what?”
In order for them to put me in traction they had to insert these screws into my skull, then attach a bar to them and somehow add weights to stretch my neck out.
Oh crap! It’s worse!
They showed me the bolts before they put them in, they looked like what was in Frankenstein’s monsters neck. I don’t remember all of it but I do remember the feeling of the screws tightening in my head, the sound reverberated thru my skull. Damn it, why couldn’t I have passed out and woken up the next day with all this done?
The drugs finally started kicking in, coupled with the exhaustion my memory gets sketchy here. I remember going into ICU and there meeting Joe, who I’d be with for the next few months. Joe had his accident I think a week or 2 before me. He was body surfing I think when he had a cartoon moment, as he jumped into a wave, the wave receded and he went in head first damaging his neck/spinal cord. We were on rotating beds to keep us from getting bed sores and there he was when our beds turned to face each other.
Joe’s first words to me were “Hey dude!” I just looked at him thinking, “What are you so happy about? We are in ICU! I don’t know about you but I’ve got nothing to be happy about!”
Wayne came in later, not really sure when. He was a pretty big boy, somewhere around 300 pounds at only 15 or 16. He had been doing some off-rode riding with family and friends in a monster truck. They had stopped in a shallow creek and he went to jump out, well his foot caught on the side of the truck and acted like a pivot point and he landed on his head breaking his neck. I heard Wayne before I saw or meet him because you could hear him crying and calling for his mother throughout the ICU. When I say that, I’m not making fun of him because truth was I don’t know why I wasn’t crying. I kept wondering what I was going to do now. I was a horrible student and hated school. The only reason I was still in school was because as soon as I went into the Marine recruiting office on Columbia Street, the recruiter took one look at me, laughed and said, “No! Come back when you grow.” I was short, no way I could pass for 17 at that time so the Marines was out and the only other thing I knew how to do was build things, I’d spent the summer not only helping out on the campground but also roofing houses, not to say I was a carpenter or roofer but those were the only things I knew how to do.
I had my Walkman with me and listened to it constantly, Van Halen, Night Ranger, Quiet Riot and others, I’d have it turned up as loud as I could trying to drown out everything.
We were on beds that rotated so that we wouldn’t get bed sores. One night I could hear gears grinding and an electric motor straining then I heard a loud CLANK! Wayne’s bed had broken.
They kept me drugged up for a while because they didn’t want me to have muscle spasms and hurt myself. Now I don’t know what drugs they gave me but I know that while I was in Ochsners hurricane George hit and I don’t know if it was the drugs or the storm but I swear I could feel the building move. This experience is also why I never did drugs because I had several hallucinations and the strange thing is some of my most vivid memories during that time were these hallucinations.
Me: Hey, somebody help me!
Nurse: What’s wrong David?
Me: I’m stuck and I can’t get up, help me up!
Nurse: David, do you know where you are?
Me: Of course! I’m stuck here in this truck, help me out. Something’s got me pinned.
Nurse: No David, you’ve had an accident and you are in Ochsners hospital.
Me: No I aint! I’m stuck in this damn truck
Nurse: No David, you are in Ochsners hospital.
Me: Yes, look, go in the front and put it in gear, I’ll prove to you I aint crazy!
Yeah, that didn’t work out too well for me!
I kept pulling the feeding tube out of my nose, after the second time they strapped my arms down.
Another thing I remember is Rhonda Shear, a model from New Orleans. Robbie’s mom had gotten me that and an autographed poster from the Saints, why I’m a die-hard fan now. Well, they couldn’t put it on the wall because I couldn’t see it so they pinned it to the ceiling right above me. When the doctors, male nurses and my friends came in, they had their head looking up at her, not at me.
Next came the surgery, they did a spinal fusion on me where they took bone from my left hip, the scare of which is still sensitive, and fussed c4, c5 and c6 together in my neck. I remember some of the prep when they shaved the back of my neck. Man I was mad! I had just recently started getting my hair styled instead of just getting it cut and had it long and looking pretty good and they butchered it up. When I woke up after the surgery I still had the tube down my throat and I panicked at first thinking I would choke. With the surgery done they took out the screws and put on a Somi Brace. This had shoulder bars and a chest plate with a support coming off it to the back of my head and a chin piece, this was to support my head and keep it straight.
Next was rehab. This would be at F. Edward Hebert on the Naval support Base on the west bank right next to the river. Here again I’d be teamed up with Joe and we’d be roommates for the next 3 months. Wayne came later to be our roommate. The room held 4 beds, 2 on each side with plenty of space between them. I was lucky enough to have a bed next to the window so I could look out and see ships going up and down the Mississippi river. Joe had the other window and Wayne would be put next to me. I’m not sure I knew what rehab was going to be like but it didn’t take long to find out. Within a day or two of getting there they put me in a wheelchair and said if I wanted to go anywhere I’d have to push myself because nobody that worked there would. At the time I thought this was pretty mean.
Here we’d meet Raymond and Jerry. Raymond was from Pine and had broken his neck when he dove shallow. He almost drowned when his friends thought he was playing around when he came up floating on his stomach.
Jerry was from Mandeville and broke his neck playing baseball. He dove head first into third and his head rolled under him as he slid.
The five of us together set a record there; they had never had that many 15/16 year old boys with spinal injuries at once. Oh and there was one girl our age, Sandy, she was 16 but she had broken her hip when a horse threw her off. There were a couple of guys in their 20’s and a couple in their 30’s but everyone else was 60+ and we were going to give them hell.
When Wayne first got there he would still cry at night for his mother. One night Joe and I had had enough and we just started yell at him to shut up, we were tired of hearing it and Wayne was yelling back at us saying to leave him alone, that we didn’t understand and we said yes we do, we are here to! So after yelling at each other for about 15 minutes or so it got real quiet. Then I hear Wayne call my name.
Wayne: David? David?
Me: What Wayne?
Wayne: You like monster trucks?
Me: Yeah, why?
And he tells me about his accident. Then he asked if I liked wrestling and I said sure, then he asked if I’d see if there was a wrestling match on tv, so I clicked thru the channels and found one. After that night Wayne didn’t cry anymore. Now I’m not saying that it’s what we had intended or that it was even right but I think Wayne needed that slap in the face, so to speak, to wake him to his new reality and see that he wasn’t alone. After that Wayne and I were a lot closer.
Wrestling would get us in trouble later on. We were watching the Von Erich’s one night and it was a really good match and all of us, even Jerry and Raymond in the next room, started yelling and cheering. Well, the old people didn’t like this too much and the nurse had to keep coming in telling us to quiet down.
Two of the other characters there at that time were Muhammad, who was either Iraqis or Iranian and Wang, who was Chinese. Other than he was a para, I don’t know much about Muhammad like how he got injured, he kept mostly to himself, not out of shyness but more out of arrogance, he always had a look of superiority about him. When we would go for a stroll around the building in the morning he would race ahead instead of staying with the pack. The therapist would always get on to him because he would go up the hill backwards. You see, when you go up a hill you kind of thrust your weight forward well if you are going backwards that’s which way your weight is going. So he is going up the hill backwards and he leans forward and pulls on the wheels as he’s thrusting his weight backwards and he’s doing pretty good until he over does it and flips over. He didn’t look so superior then. Wang I know got hurt on a ship out in the gulf when he fell down some stairs, he was a quad like Wayne and couldn’t move anything. He couldn’t speak any English so during the day he had a translator with him all the time. I asked the translator one day how to say “how are you?” and he told me “kne ou mau” now that’s not chinese writing, that’s my English version of how it sounds. So after that anytime I passed Wang I would say that and he would smile and then start saying something in chinese as if I understood him. The only English I ever remember him saying was at a Saints game when he started saying “way to go!” It sounded kinda funny in his broken english.
Over the next few months we would have an intense therapy/exercise schedule. For those of us with spinal injuries it would start in the mornings before breakfast with mat class, were we would get on these elevated mats that were bigger than a king size bed so we could lie down on our backs and do some arm exercises then roll onto our stomachs for more, sounds easy till you try it with a big ass brace on. Try rolling over next time you are in bed without using your head as a counter weight, see how hard it is. Then we’d have physical therapy which was just more exercises. My therapist was a woman named Sandra, I think. She would start our morning session by stretching my legs, basically bending them back to where my knee touched my nose. She also helped me work on my balance. She would do this by swinging my legs off the mat so that my feet were flat on the floor, then she would pull me up by my hand so that I was in a seated position with my arms slightly behind me at an angle. Then she would have me lift my arms up off the mat and try to balance, and then just as I am starting to get situated she would push me over. “What the hell?” “Well you have to learn to catch yourself.” Another thing she did when we first started was to give me a one pound dumbbell and told me to raise it up over my head, so I push my arm up real fast with the weight not thinking too much about it until I get my arm all the way up and realize my triceps weren’t strong enough to even hold one freaking pound and the dumbbell come crashing down on the top of my head. “Ok, there’s something you will need to work on.”
We had respiratory therapy because we only had 50% or less lung capacity. Occupational therapy where we learned how to do the everyday little stuff that you never think about like holding a fork, tying your shoe, putting on your pants etc. then more physical therapy. Then recreational therapy which was more like occupational therapy only using games and crafts. And then finally we had school classes in the late afternoon before dinner. I almost forgot, we also had counseling, both individually and as a group. In group therapy we did SEALS training. No not SEALS training, SILS (Spinal Injury Learning Series) training, with our mothers. Oh boy! That was fun. SILS training was harder than SEALS training and before I have some SEAL start in on me saying no it isn’t let me just say this, you could have quit, rung the bell and left, we couldn’t. And second you didn’t have…BODY PART PUPPETS!
“HI! I’m your bladder!” “And we are your kidneys!” “And too much soft drink isn’t good for us.”
“I’m your skin, be sure to keep me clean and dry!”
There was more. Think I’m kidding? I still have the workbook that came with it.
When we joked and played around in group our mothers would tell us to shut up and when we were quiet they tried to get us to talk. We did one group without our mothers where they wanted to talk about sex but it was a woman counselor and she may as well have been in the gestapo because we weren’t talking. If you want to get 5 teenage boys to be as quiet and motionless as statues just mention sex with a woman around. She would bring up a subject and try to get us involved but we just sat there, even Joe who liked talking bout stuff like that when it was just the guys wasn’t talking. She couldn’t have paid us to talk that day.
We had several field trips while I was there, the first being to the mall. We each had some money and before we could leave we had to buy something from one of the stores. It would also be the first time I got to see a Saints game in the Dome, unfortunately it was a loss to the rams. After getting the somi brace off and getting the philadelphia collar they asked if I wanted to go swimming, I of course said yes to that, I was part fish, WAS! I was now part rock. They got me in the water with a life jacket on and I tried to swim but it was no use. Again I still had a neck brace and trying to swim without moving your head is damn near impossible. I even tried on my back and couldn’t, I just didn’t float right and I didn’t have the strength to propel myself fast enough to stay on top. It was the first time in my life I was scared of the water.
The first time I got to come home was mid-october for the fair. The only solution they could come up with for me to go home at that time was for me to sleep on the floor on my stomach since they were still worried about bed sores. I don’t know what was wrong with my old bed other than maybe it was too small. I had to use a prone pillow, basically a hard foam pillow with a hole in the middle for my face so I wouldn’t suffocate. I got to the fair the next day in time to see the high school band play and talk to some of my friends but that was awkward, they didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know, it was really nothing liked I had hoped it would be or expected.
Wheelchair fashion sucked. It started with ted hose, or compression stockings due to the poor circulation in my legs. I also had a girdle on around my stomach for the same reason, luckily that would be covered by a shirt. Pants, which looked fine while standing, now looked as if I were always expecting a flood. Shirts were no problem but then I’d have a chest strap on top of the shirt so I wouldn’t fall out of the chair. Shoes were a pain in the ass cause just as i go to put them on my toes would curl down making it even harder to get them on.
One of the benefits of being taken off all the medication was muscle spasms (sarcasm). A muscle spasm is an involuntary movement and they range from “that’s uncomfortable” where it was just maybe my foot bouncing to, “that hurts” when it would move into my whole leg. Remember the leg muscles are still at full strength I’m just not controlling them. And they would go all the way up to “dear God! I think the bones are gonna break!” These would go all the way into my back and try to straighten me out like a 2x4, that’s why I had to wear a chest strap to keep me from falling out onto the floor. One late evening as I was getting on the elevator I had a bad spasm and started sliding out of my chair and the chest strap caught me but the wheels were in my arm pits. When I got to my floor there was an aid waiting on the elevator. As I slowly rolled out, “oh thank God! I think I need some help.” “Well the nurses’ station is right around the corner.” And he got in the elevator and left.
Wayne at first couldn’t move anything but his head but slowly started to move his shoulders. When he got to doing this pretty good they decided to put him in an electric wheelchair. What they did was suspend his arm in a sling above the joystick so he could use his shoulder to move his whole arm and in turn the joystick. As he was trying it out an aide was walking with him around the hospital, I saw them at the elevator where they and Jerry were waiting. When the elevator door opened Jerry went in first, got to the back and turned sideways. As Wayne was starting to enter he had a spasm and his arm shot straight out causing the chair to take off straight at Jerry, crashing into him and pinning him to the back of the elevator. Before the aide could react the door closed and the elevator went down. The aide took off running for the stairs to catch them, leaving me and a couple of others there laughing.
Joe at times could be a real asshole, now before you say anything about the pot calling the kettle black let me give you an example. One evening Wayne and I were in the room watching tv when Joe comes in, followed by a nurse, saying something about changing clothes. Now all 4 beds in the room had a privacy curtain but modesty wasn’t something we were worried about after a while. Now to help someone in a chair get undressed the nurse would lean over and grab the waist of their pants and then the person in the chair puts their hands on the wheels and lifts themselves up while the nurse pulls the pants down to the knees then they sit back down and nurse would then lift each leg and pull the pants the rest of the way off. Well…that aint exactly what happened this time. When the nurse, (I can still see her face but can’t remember her name) a pretty woman with shoulder length blonde hair, in her late 20’s early 30’s leaned over and grabbed Joe’s pants, Joe quickly put his hands on the back of her head, pushing it down into his crotch while moaning, “Oh baby! Oh baby!” She staggered backwards a few steps as she pushed herself away from him, her right arm coming backwards preparing to slap him out of the chair. She just stood there looking at Joe, who was trying to make himself as small as possible in his chair with his arms up to shield his head and face, laughing hysterically. She glanced over to me and Wayne, who yes were also laughing, and then she looked back at Joe and stormed out. See?! I told you! Joe being Joe would eventually lead to me almost getting kicked out of the hospital.
I came into the room one day and Wayne was in there. He had his head down and was looking depressed so I asked him what was wrong. He told me that the aide had brought his lunch in but said she had to do something before she fed him so Joe said he would feed him. Joe starts feeding him but he’s doing the airplane and train, like you’d do to a baby, with the spoon circling his mouth and Wayne trying to chase it. Well you can imagine how this would make Wayne feel; with him not being able to move his arms and do anything about it. This made me so damn mad, I immediately went to hunt Joe down. I found him in front of the nurses’ station with his back against the wall. I didn’t say anything, I just pulled up beside him and started punching him. I’m not sure how many shoots I got in before they pulled me off of him but I got a few good ones in and he didn’t get any hits on me. When they did get me away from him I don’t remember what I was saying but I was cussing him pretty good. For this I had to go see my counselor to discuss the incident and they were seriously considering kicking me out at first but when I told them what Joe had done, and Wayne confirmed it, they let me stay but I would be punished. I couldn’t go on anymore field trips and I couldn’t go to anymore Saints games. They also had me taking my classes early and eating supper with the chemical addicts from the 6th floor, which I really didn’t mind too much. But the stupid part was that they didn’t put either of us in a separate room, we stayed where we were. I don’t know what type of punishment Joe got for what he did.
On the weekends family and friends would visit and that really helped. They tried to make things as nice and pleasant and normal as they could but I know it wasn’t easy. Sometimes they’d bring me something to eat from Pancho’s, my favorite restaurant. Jon, Kevin, Robbie, Danon and Chad would come and we’d usually go hang out outside under the pavilion or take a stroll around the grounds, or maybe watch a movie. They tried treating me the same, even going so far rolling me down the hill.
Chad: I got ya, I’ll push.
Me: ok
We started going down the hill from the building.
Me: slow down, you’re going too fast. Slow down Chad! Chad, slow down! CHAD! CHAD!
Finally I put my hands on the push rims to stop and when I turn around, all of them are running down the hill. They claimed it was an accident but they all had a smirk on their face. You want to find out who your real true friends are, see who it is trying to prank you when others think it’s inappropriate.
Jerry had already left and I haven’t seen him since Joe had also left, he actually ended up walking out of the hospital, although he did have to use a walker, in recent years we have been in touch and he even came to stay with me when he came over from Texas. Wayne and Raymond were still there when I left. Wayne I would see a few times but not for a long time after leaving the hospital, he passed away not too long ago. Raymond I still run into every now and then, either at the fair or around Bogalusa or Franklinton. All totaled I was in the hospital 123 days, I entered August 24, 1985 and left December 11, 1985 only 3 day before my 16th birthday.

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