Speaker asks students to stay safe before prom

ThinkFirst program targets brain and spinal cord injuries in teens, young adults

In one split second eight years ago Chad Thomas’ life changed forever. Driving home at night after work, he fell asleep at the wheel. The next morning, he learned he would never walk again.

As a teenager, Thomas wasn’t so different from many of the local high school students he spoke to in West Hancock’s packed gym Monday afternoon. He was a four-sport athlete, excelling in track. He had just graduated from high school where he grew up in Spirit Lake, and planned to start college in the fall. But a lapse in judgment when he got in his car one night changed all that.

At the time of his accident, Thomas was not wearing a seat belt.

“I have no Motor function, no muscle control from my mid-section down,” Thomas told the students as he rolled across the floor in his wheelchair. “I always thought car crashes happened to other people. I’m thankful, I’m very fortunate to be alive.”

Thomas was at the high school after being invited to share his story with students less than a week before West Hancock’s prom. As a young man with a spinal cord injury, he turned to the ThinkFirst Foundation less than two years after his accident. He quickly grew with the program, becoming a speaker and traveling to share a message of prevention with high school students. Today, he is a program coordinator for the non-profit organization.

The foundation’s message is clear: Use your mind to protect your body.

Thomas says teenagers are at a higher risk for brain and spinal cord injuries because of their level of activities.

“We’re not here to tell you to stop, but to slow down,” Thomas said.

Each year an estimated 500,000 people sustain brain and spinal cord injuries in the United States, according to ThinkFirst. The most frequent causes of these injuries are motor vehicle crashes, falls, sports and recreation, especially diving, and violence. Children and teens are at high-risk for these devastating injuries, many of which are preventable. In the United States, a person receives a brain injury every 21 seconds. In the short time it took Thomas to introduce himself to the students, another 13 people received a traumatic brain injury.

The job of Thomas and others like him in the organization is to teach young people that most brain injuries aren’t from “accidents” – they are preventable.

“I think I have a great life, I wouldn’t change it for the world, but I wouldn’t want you guys to go through it,” Thomas said to the students as they sat quietly on the bleachers listening to his story. “I’m here to tell you this is real, you think it can’t happen to you, but it can.”

Monday’s program involved video testimonials from other young people with brain and spinal cord injuries, a detailed presentation on what happens to the body when the brain and spine are injured, and footage from a real accident in which the driver was not wearing a seat belt.

Thomas said his biggest concerns are people not wearing seat belts, driving while intoxicated or riding with someone who is, diving into water without testing its depth and violence among teens.

He shared a sobering video and story about a car crash in which just one person was not wearing a seat belt during a car crash. That person, by careening around inside the car after impact, caused the death or three other passengers, all of whom were wearing seat belts.

“I hope I scare you guys,” Thomas said. “This is real, not pretend.”

Thomas’ strong message was dotted with humor. He was able to laugh and joke with the students about his daily struggles and triumphs at getting prepared for each day and driving a car with hand controls, his passion for wheelchair basketball and his life as a new husband. At 26, he still understands the need for teenage thrills; he just wants the activities to be safe.

“I hope these kids think first before doing anything, and before prom this weekend,” Thomas said after his presentation.

Mary Clark, a counselor for the school district, said she wanted Thomas to speak to the students because she starts to worry about kids at this time of year, when prom is at the height of planning and graduation is just around the corner.

“I want to make kids aware of what will happen if they make the wrong choice,” Clark said. “I think we have great kids at our school, but everyone needs reminders to be safe.”

By ANGIE JOHANNSEN, News-Tribune Editor

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