Tom Jones remembers nothing of the accident. And only slightly more of the five weeks spent at Columbia St. Mary’s Sacred Heart Rehabilitation Institute.
He knows it was May 25, 2009 and that he was four-wheeling with a friend near his lake house in Hiles, Wisconsin. And he knows for certain that he wasn’t doing anything unsafe. “People that know me would have thought I was doing something really dumb, driving really fast, unknown terrain,” he says. “In reality it was none of that.”
Tom, 54, was Chief of Battalion 2 for the Milwaukee Fire Department. He and a fellow firefighter were driving home from a day of trail riding – “They tell me I was doing no more than 15 miles an hour” – and as he transitioned from the shoulder to the road, his two right tires got caught in a three-inch-deep groove. No one really knows why or how, but all of a sudden his four-wheeler flipped and landed on Tom’s head.
Tom’s riding partner quickly called 911 and it wasn’t long before Flight for Life was dispatched and transported Tom to Aspirus Wausau Hospital, where he stayed for the next three weeks. “I don’t remember a thing about Aspirus,” he says. “They say I was conscious, but I don’t know that. I was in a coma for 11 days.”
Once released, Tom’s recovery was only just beginning. Unable to walk and having difficulties with his speech, memory and vision, he was admitted to Sacred Heart in Milwaukee. Under the care of Dr. Elizabeth Davis and a brain injury team of nurses, physical, speech and occupational therapists, a social worker and psychologist, in addition to a therapeutic recreation therapist, Tom endured the 40 most frustrating and rewarding days of his life.
“The therapist would roll a ball and ask me to kick it. I couldn’t do it,” Tom says. “I was fairly athletic before, so when you can’t kick a ball that’s rolling at you, it really made me feel mentally handicapped. When you’re a 50-year-old man and you can’t even sit up and get out of bed, that’s where the real mental challenge was. At the time you never really know how long it’s gonna last.”
But he persisted and with the unwavering help of this specialized brain injury team at Sacred Heart, Tom began to walk. Step by step, at first, but everyday he got a little bit stronger. And eventually he was walking on his own. One day he woke up and his double vision was gone and his speech began returning to normal. His memory of the accident, however, remains lost.
“Dr. Davis did a good job of telling me that. She was very forward and honest, which was something I really appreciated,” Tom says. “She would say, ‘You know, you’re never going to remember. The only thing that makes it better is time and hard work. That’s a very hard thing to swallow. But I would say it’s a blessing in disguise.”
Though he retired from the Milwaukee Fire Department shortly after leaving Sacred Heart (he had previously intended to do so anyway, the accident just ensured it), Tom still works closely with them through the two businesses he owns: Emergency Response Specialist, LLC, a company that handles hazardous material and mass decontamination training, and Chief’s Choice, which makes detailing products for fire trucks and fire engines. And even though he can no longer bowl, which he misses dearly, life for Tom in the spring of 2012 is pretty much back to normal.
“I wouldn’t take back the day of the accident for anything in the world. I know it sounds crazy, but the experience has been more rewarding than anything in my life. The accident forced me to recognize the best of my family, the best of my friends and the best of the Milwaukee Fire Department,” he says. “If it wasn’t for the people at Sacred Heart my life would be totally different. Their time, their patience, their system of recovery was truly tremendous.”
Perhaps most amazing of all, less than five months after the accident
Tom was back on that four-wheeler.
“Slowly,” he says, “and I wear a helmet.”