by Lisa Sone, Quality Manager, Central Office, Jefferson City
“It’s really just black and white to me. You can either pull the covers over your head and be miserable and make others miserable or you can pull yourself up by the boot straps and make the best of it.” That is how Tommy Smith, age 35, describes the unimaginable ordeal that befell him six years earlier.
There wasn’t much stopping Tommy from getting anything that he wanted out of life. He graduated in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree and in 1994 with his doctorate, both in pharmacy, from the St. Louis College of Pharmacy. For five years, he enjoyed a successful career as the operations director for Corum Health Services in St. Louis, Mo. Corum Health is a division of Delmar Gardens, a nursing home company, which wanted to create its own pharmacy for its residents.
On New Years Eve of 1999, Tommy was looking forward to welcoming in the new millennium. It was at a party that Tommy first felt ill; almost flu-like. He left early and went home to bed. On New Year’s Day, he awoke feeling as if he had the “worst fluever.” He developed splotches on his legs and fierce pain seared throughout his body. As a pharmacist, he had a suspicion that this was much more than the flu.
After phoning his doctor with his symptoms, he was directed to the emergency room at Missouri Baptist Hospital in St. Louis, Mo. Upon his arrival he was sent to a quarantined area where he lost consciousness. Tommy had meningitis; a type of meningitis knownas meningococcal, which is a fast spreading infection capable of causing irreparable damage to the body.
For 10 weeks, Tommy was unconscious. He said, “It felt like I was in one continuous dream that was vivid and real.” He remembered seeing faces but then he’d drift away on what he called “a journey.”
During the second week of March, Tommy awoke in a different hospital—St. John’s in St. Louis, Mo. He also awoke to a different body. Tommy described it as, “going to bed in one body and waking up in another.” The infection ravaged his body cutting off circulation and destroying his extremities resulting in the amputation of one of his legs above the knee, the other leg below the knee, one arm at the wrist, and one arm about mid-forearm.
He spent weeks in St. John’s rehab unit preparing for the challenges he would face the rest of his life. Tommy’s “black and white—either I can choose to do this or not” attitude pushed him forward. By the first week in May, he accelerated from inpatient to the day hospital and then onto outpatient rehab in July 2000. While Tommy was undergoing rehab, he and his partner, Brook Schumann, began rehabbing a house to fit his new life. Tommy’s family and friends flooded in ready to help ensuring he made it to therapy and assisted him when he needed it.
By spring 2001, things really started popping. The house was completed, and Tommy was ready to hit the road—he began driving. While in the hospital, a social worker introduced him to Sadye Gartland, a senior counselor out of the St. Louis West Vocational Rehabilitation office. “Sadye was instrumental in getting me a van. It completely changed my life,” said Tommy.
Tommy made the down payment while his family threw a fundraiser in his hometown of Decatur, Il., to help him purchase the van. Vocational Rehabilitation paid for all of the van’s outfittings, ramp, and driving controls. VR also assisted him with a cuff and a pen device, assistive equipment for his home, and a powerchair.
Tommy credits a large portion of his success to Sadye. He said, “She doesn’t make me feel like just a job to her. She does her job not because she has to, but because she wants to.” Without Sadye, Tommy said, “I’d just be on a couch somewhere.”
While working with VR and evaluating what he wanted to do with his future, Tommy decided to return to school for a law degree. Tommy entered the St. Louis University School of Law in the fall of 2002 where he began classes in the nation’s top health and law program. By May 2005, he graduated with his juris doctorate degree. VR funded portions of his tuition and books and the fees for his bar exam, which he took in July of 2005 and passed.
Tommy has also received help from an organization that is now very dear to his heart. C.H.A.M.P. Assistance Dogs, Inc., of Florissant, Mo., introduced Jazz to Tommy.
Jazz is a highly skilled service dog trained to assist Tommy with daily activities. He said, “Jazz is brilliant. If you drop something, she’s right there to pick it up without even asking.” She has been trained to have complete self-control and discipline.
In August 2005, Tommy embarked on a new career path. Tommy’s alma mater, the St. Louis College of Pharmacy, called. While enrollment at the college doubled, the number of elective courses hadn’t. Tommy was hired to teach an introductory pharmacy class and asked to develop a new elective course; one that would blend together his degrees in pharmacy and law.
Tommy has pressed forward with his life achieving success through his strong character and positive personality. Though Tommy has been the driving force behind all of his accomplishments, he credits VR for the help he has received along the way. “I can’t imagine what my quality of life would be without VR,” he said. “I don’t want to even think about it.”
“The work VR does is amazing,” said Tommy. “It’s a shame that more people don’t take advantage of this great gift. It’s so powerful to be part of the working world. Having those with disabilities working really opens eyes up,” he said. “We need more of us out there. The rewards of being in the workforce are so great.” Tommy offered the following advice, “Get up and go to work in the morning like everyone else. Don’t settle for being on disability. Keep pushing on.”