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Monday, Sep. 26, 2016

Life beyond the wheelchair

Monday, April 8, 2002

An area native urges pupils to "think first" in TIPS presentation on Wednesday morning

Two-point-five seconds.

That small number was one of the central figures in Chad Thomas' presentation to pupils from Storm Lake Middle School on Wednesday morning, as the Spirit Lake native told the crowd of silent students that not taking the 2.5 seconds it takes to put on a seat belt left him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Thomas, a student at the University of Northern Iowa who will graduate next year with a double major in business and psychology, appeared before the SLMS audience as a representative of the TIPS program, a Waterloo-based organization which carries a message of thinking before acting to students across Iowa.

The presence of Thomas, a former four-sport athlete, was meant to underscore the importance of wearing seat belts and helmets to the middle schoolers, and Thomas said he hopes his appearance made an impression on those who listened to him speak.

"I thought this was something I could do to let other students know about this and make a positive impact on them," Thomas, 21, said. "I know what can happen if you don't put on your seat belt, for example, and this was a good way to share my experience with other students and hopefully make them aware of what can happen."

Thomas, who set a Spirit Lake High record in cross-country and was planning to walk on for the baseball team in college, fell asleep at the wheel while driving home from work three years ago, triggering an accident which saw his car careen into a ditch, fly more than 100 feet in the air and roll over several times before stopping.

The crash paralyzed the former track star from the waist down, and after spending several weeks in a Sioux City hospital, Thomas was transported to Craig Hospital in Denver, Colorado, where he underwent a rehabilitation process consisting of long hours of physical and occupational therapy.

Initially upset and confused about his new life as a paraplegic, Thomas said the staff at Craig played a huge role in helping him learn to adapt and overcome the loss of movement in his legs.

"I was lucky, because the people at Craig were very positive and were always encouraging," Thomas said. "They helped me realize that I need to enjoy life and do something with it, and that's what I'm trying to do. They helped me get upbeat and optimistic about the situation, and I just want to live every day with as much energy and excitement as I can."

After completing his rehabilitation in Colorado, Thomas returned home to northwest Iowa, where he immediately faced everyday challenges such as entering his home and driving a car. His parents helped him conquer the former by building a handicapped-accessible addition to their multilevel home, and Thomas has overcome the latter by using handheld controls to operate his car.

He has also continued to stay involved in athletics by joining a wheelchair basketball team in Waterloo, an exercise Thomas said he thoroughly enjoys.

"I've had a lot of fun with it, because it's pretty competitive," Thomas said. "After the first three practices I had most of the paint on the lower level of my wheelchair chipped off from all the guys bumping into one another, so everybody goes all out for it. It's been a great way to stay active and have fun with the other guys."

Thomas, who is considering attending law school after graduation, has also started an internet-based business, which keeps him busy when not playing basketball, completing schoolwork or being with friends on campus.

Optimistic about the future, Thomas said he hopes his role with TIPS will help students learn to take 2.5 seconds to buckle up before putting their vehicle in drive - next time and every time.

"I want to help other avoid being in my situation in the future. If I can do that, then I know I've done something important."

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