A walking miracle: Swampscott’s Tom Smith overcame an injury that nearly put him in a wheelchair for life

Published: April 7, 2009  |  Source: salemnews.com
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No one was sure if Tom Smith was going to be able to chase down the skater that had slipped away from the pack for a breakaway — least of all his own goalie.

According to Smith’s memory, he never made it.

His body tells a much different story.

Smith, a Swampscott native who was playing for the Northern New England team in Hockey Night in Boston’s summer tournament, has no recollection of advancing any further than the red line — sort of like changing the channel in the middle of a play in a televised hockey game — but a collision ensued that altered his life.

“I guess I caught up to him and the goalie didn’t know if I would. He came out to poke check, I tried to jump the goalie and my skates hit his helmet,” Smith said, relaying the details he lived, but learned of secondhand. “I went airborne seven feet and went head first into the boards. I never had the opportunity to pick my head up.”

The head-first crash resulted in a brain stem dislocation and nerve damage in his C1, C2, C4 and C5 vertebrae. Smith lost feeling in his arms and upper chest, as well as having blotches of numbness in his hips and calves.

He was told he might spend the remainder of his life in a wheelchair.

Smith was determined to recover, however, and eventually gained admittance into The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, a world renowned spinal cord injury research center located in the Lois Pope LIFE Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Through months of hard work, determination and rehabilitation, Smith is not only back on his feet, he’s back on his skates.

Now, he’s trying to give back to The Miami Project by selling blue rubber bracelets that say “Cure Paralysis”.

“I’ve been told down there that I’m a walking miracle,” Smith, a former Pingree School hockey player, said. “People told me they had never seen someone in as bad shape as I was turn around so quickly. I talked to Dr. Barth Green (The Miami Project co-founder) the last time I was there and he was just in awe. He said, ‘We just can’t believe how far you’ve come. We expected you to be down here for years.'”

Smith’s accident occurred in late August. He traveled by ambulance to a hospital in Haverhill from the rink, then moved on to Beth Israel Hospital in Boston.

In the short amount of time it took to travel, Smith’s condition worsened considerably.

“They wanted to airlift me (to Beth Israel) but it was stormy,” Smith said. “You can only do so much in an ambulance. It only took 17 minutes to get there, but during that time the swelling had expanded. That was like the kickoff to everything.”

‘A really scary experience’

Mike Addesa, head coach of the Boston Bulldogs Junior A hockey team, had never met Smith. But on the recommendation of Pingree hockey coach Buddy Taft, Addesa penciled him in as a Bulldogs forward.

Addesa was coaching the Northern New England team in Hockey Night and arranged for Smith to play for him before the Bulldogs’ season began. He found everything that Taft told him about Smith — aggressive, hard-nosed, up-and-down player — was true.

Addesa remembers thinking that Smith’s aggressive, never-give-up nature on the ice was part of the reason he crashed into the boards. Many players would have given up on the play.

Addesa has spent 43 years coaching from the high school level all the way to professional hockey and never experienced anything more gut-wrenching than watching Smith lay motionless on the ice.

“I’m a tough guy and I’ve been around for awhile, but that was a really scary experience,” Addesa said. “There were several times we talked on the phone (after the injury) that my eyes filled up. He’s a beautiful young guy and I’d be saying to myself, ‘C’mon, God. We need you. You gotta touch Tommy on the shoulder.’ I’d get off the phone and my eyes would fill up and I’d pray.”

Serious action

Very little progress followed for the month after the accident.

Smith struggled walking on his own. He didn’t have complete feeling and needed three people just to help him with his mobility.

After spending six days at Beth Israel, Smith was discharged and sent to Shaughnessy-Kaplan Rehabilitation Hospital in Salem. Two weeks spent there did little for Smith’s condition, or his hope for a full recovery.

“I wasn’t really making strides,” Smith said. “I think my progress in a month was that I could balance on one leg for two seconds. It really wasn’t any progress. It was discouraging for awhile.”

It became clear that Smith’s case called for serious action. That’s when Smith and his family began looking into receiving specialized treatment.

There are limited options for people who have spinal cord injuries and The Miami Project is one of them. Just having a spinal cord injury isn’t enough to get your foot in the door, however, due to the funding.

Endless emails and letters of recommendation, including one from form University of Miami and Heisman Award-winning quarterback Gino Torretta, helped Smith gain admittance. Torretta, who is a friend of a friend for Smith’s uncle, may have been the deciding factor because of his connection in Miami.

What followed was two months of rigorous therapy, therapy which Smith’s body responded to very well.

“I went down the 26th of October and they started right away with 3-4 hours a day with a therapist. Then I’d go home (to his brother’s house in Delray Beach) and do more therapy. It was 7-8 hour days for every day until Christmas for two months,” Smith said. “Basically, in the most simple terms, they were getting my head on straight, as crazy as that sounds.”

Doesn’t take no for an answer

Smith still needs to stay on top of therapy, but he’s able to do it at home now.

There’s little doubt that Smith will keep up with it.

“I had the baseball team in Florida last year and next to our condo complex was a football field. One morning I woke up around 5:30, 6 a.m. It was still foggy and dark, but I could see a parachute on the football field,” Taft recalled. “Tom was out in the morning doing sprints with a parachute. He wouldn’t take no for an answer and he went into therapy that way.”

He still lacks feeling on part of his chest and arms, but he’s walking and skating on his own. He’s even eyeing a return to the ice for some competitive hockey.

“Throughout the whole process coach Addesa couldn’t have been better. He honored my contract and put me on for next year. I think that was huge, especially at the junior level. He could have said, ‘No, we’re going in a different direction.’ But he kept the faith,” Smith said.

“The doctors said hopefully in the beginning to middle of July I’ll be making my first appearance in a tournament. That’s the goal.”

By Matt Jenkins
Staff writer
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Contributing to the cure

Tom Smith, who suffered a dislocated brain stem and nerve damage in his vertebrae after a crash into the hockey boards last summer, is selling blue rubber bracelets that say “Cure Paralysis” for $3. All proceeds will go to The Miami Project, a world renowned spinal cord injury research center in Florida. Bracelets will be sold at several local stores in the Swampscott area beginning next Monday.