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In September, Cole Thomas was driving his co-workers to a job site when a deer darted in front of his truck. He swerved to avoid it and landed in a ditch. When he tried correcting the turn and pulling back onto the road, he spun out of control and the truck rolled three times. After opening his eyes, Thomas noticed he could see his legs, but couldn't move them.
“I realized I was hurt very badly,” Thomas, 34, told TODAY. “I looked down at my legs and I couldn’t feel them and I was like ‘Oh boy.’”
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As he waited for the ambulance, he had to hold himself up with his arms or else he felt excruciating pain. A good Samaritan eventually helped hold Thomas up until help came.
Rescuers flew him to St. Anthony’s Hospital in Chicago, where doctors learned Thomas shattered his L2 vertebra, with pieces of it embedded in his spinal cord. Doctors performed surgery to remove the bone and insert two rods and eight screws to stabilize the spine. It seemed unlikely he would walk again.
“I was paralyzed from the waist down. I had very, very minimal feeling,” he said.
But Thomas, of Rockford, Illinois, felt determined to walk again. He wanted to dance with his wife, Tara, and eventually walk daughters Rylie, 9, and Taylor, 5 down the aisle at their weddings.
He posted a video on Facebook from his hospital bed, pleading for people to connect him to resources that could help him walk. That’s when a relative discovered the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab on Erie Street in Chicago. Eight days after his accident, Thomas moved to in-patient therapy.
“At first, it is really bleak,” he said. “I didn’t know anything. You’re basically a baby just coming into the world.”
The therapists focused on a high intensity, task specific training program, which they designed and believe it leads to better outcomes. When Thomas still had no feeling from the waist down, the therapists made him use his upper body and get out of bed without help.
After a month of in-patient therapy, Thomas felt despondent with his lack of progress. One day his therapist conducted a touch test to see if any feeling had returned. It hadn’t.
“It put me down in the dumps,” he said.
So Thomas closed his eyes and said a prayer over and over. When he opened his eyes, he saw his left big toe moving.
“That had to have been a sign,” he said. “That is the farthest place for your brain to send a signal.”
This toe became the start of Thomas’ incredible progress. After he completed two months of in-patient rehab, he started day rehab. And he continued gaining movement. By Thanksgiving, he moved his big toe on his right leg. In the middle of December, he was holding himself up on the parallel bars and felt like his left leg wanted to move.
“I shimmied with my arms on the bars and took a couple steps,” he said. His upper body completely supported his lower, but he felt inspired that his legs wanted to move.
On New Year’s Eve while visiting with his family, he pulled himself up and stood for the first time, until the family dog, Tygra, knocked him down. Less than a week later, he asked his therapist, Megan Hufnagel, if he could practice walking. He progressed from walking with a walker with braces on his legs, to walking without the braces and then without the walker.
“His recovery has been remarkable. Every single week, he was reaching milestones,” said Hufnagel. “Every Friday Cole did something new.”
Only seven months after doctors told him he couldn’t walk, Thomas is walking and returning home.
“It’s just really rewarding and very inspiring to see,” said Hufnagel. “Attitude is important in terms of recovery. He came in here and was ready to work.”
Every morning, Thomas played music to pump up himself and the other patients while he led them in their warm-up exercises. When he wasn’t in therapy, he worked out.
“I knew I was going to have to give rehab and therapy 110 percent just like I did my job. I have to walk again no matter what,” he said. "I have to be the best I could be."
Thomas graduated from the rehab program by walking out the door and looks forward to walking his dog and boating. He hopes someday to be a physical therapist and help others.
“I have something that many other physical therapy students don’t have,” he said. “I have seven and a half months’ experience.”