Chad Thomas said that one moment in the summer of 1998 changed his life forever.
Then 18 years old, the now 25-year-old Thomas fell asleep behind the wheel of his parents’ Ford Explorer and careened off the road, jumping a fence before coming to a violent stop. Thomas, who was not wearing a seat belt, suffered a series of injuries — none worse than the severed spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the waist down.
“I thought bad things always happen to other people in other states,” he said Wednesday to the sophomore class at West High’s auditorium. “I never thought I’d be speaking to a group of high school kids about spinal cord injuries.”
Thomas’ speech was part of a TIPS/Think First injury prevention program for sophomores at West and City High. Standing for “Traumatic Injury Prevention Strategies,” the TIPS program included a technical discussion of the effects of brain and spinal cord injuries, video testimonies of victims and Thomas’ story.
Lisa O’Neill, TIPS program director with Iowa Health Systems in Waterloo, said the program targets more than 24,000 high school sophomores across Iowa each year and encouraged them to think before acting in their activities.
“It’s the year they’re learning how to drive, get some independence,” O’Neill said. “The overall emphasis is to think about their activities … make good choices.”
Thomas, now the TIPS program coordinator, said he wished he had worn his seat belt on the night of his car crash. He told the students that even after undergoing more than three months of treatment and Rehabilitation at hospitals in Sioux City and Denver, Colo., and graduating two years ago with a degree in psychology from the University of Northern Iowa, he still must deal with life as a Paraplegic.
“I am 100 percent reliant on my upper body to do everything,” he said. “I was supposed to be at college, having a good time, meeting new friends, attending class occasionally. Now I couldn’t get in and out of my parents’ house on my own.
“I don’t want you to go through what I did.”
Students who watched the presentation said the message served as a wake-up call.
“It was a big reality check,” said Ryan Jehle, 15, a West High sophomore.
Classmate Mahmoud Elkhalifa , 15, said the presentation sent a powerful message.
“I didn’t know seat belts could affect your life that much,” he said.
Fellow sophomore Catharine Found, 16, said she appreciated Thomas’ testimony.
“I thought it was inspiring in that we had an example,” she said.
By Rob Daniel
Iowa City Press-Citizen
Reach Rob Daniel at 339-7360