His attitude was so positive that his doctors called in a psychologist. But although he’d lost both legs, Jordan Thomas, then 16, was OK. His attitude was in check, and so were his dreams for the future, including returning to the golf team he captained for his senior year of high school.
“The psychologist asked me what my expectations were after the accident, and I said I want to be back to where I was before. I want to be playing golf,” says Thomas, now 21. “And he said, ‘Well, I think those expectations may be too unrealistic. You may not hit the golf ball over 200 yards again.’ ”
Thomas turned that negativity into motivation, and not only is he playing the best golf of his life, he’s working on behalf of another team as well. Inspired by his time in the hospital post-accident, Thomas established the Jordan Thomas Foundation in 2005 to provide quality prosthetics, as well as ongoing support and counseling for underprivileged amputee patients. The nonprofit has since topped its original goal of raising $500,000 and has changed the lives of four kids who couldn’t otherwise afford prosthetic limbs. Thomas also started a campaign recently to provide prostheses kits for disabled children in Haiti.
This past year, a star-studded panel—including Elton John, Whoopi Goldberg and Ted Turner—named Thomas a Top 10 CNN Hero for 2009, and he was featured in a live special on Thanksgiving Day with Anderson Cooper.
But Thomas doesn’t agree with that label: “I don’t think I’m a hero. I’ve responded the best way I knew how to. All I’m trying to do is fix something that’s not right.”
It all started on a family vacation in the Florida Keys. Thomas had jumped into the water behind their boat to go scuba diving—but the wake from the boat was so strong that it pushed the 16-year-old into the engine’s propellers. He was rushed to a Miami hospital where he underwent several surgeries to save his life, while still losing his legs from his calves down.
“Mentally and emotionally, I was pretty good right after my accident because I had a lot of family and support there,” he recalls. “I had this awareness that, if I worked hard, I could be back to where I was before the accident. So I never felt that I was going to be limited.”
Yet, during his weeks at the hospital, Thomas met other amputees who didn’t have the same support and access to care—those who could never afford high-quality prosthetics like his, which cost upward of $24,000. He learned that children especially have a tough lot because they often outgrow their prosthetics and need to buy new ones more frequently than adults.
“There were so many kids who didn’t have access to the health care that I did, didn’t have the family support and the friends support,” Thomas says. “I learned the incredible need out there for support in all kinds of ways. That was an eye-opening experience for me, just seeing the kids who were so much worse off than me, because I’d never been confronted with that before.”
Thomas didn’t look away from that harsh reality. Instead, he and his parents (both doctors from Chattanooga, Tenn.) shared his experiences, a core group began to grow, and the Jordan Thomas Foundation was formed while its namesake was still in the hospital.
The dollars came rolling in, through fundraisers like golf classics and low-country boils popular in the Charleston, S.C., area, where he attends college. Funds came as well as through the sales of rubber bracelets imprinted with “Press on J.T.”—an inspiring phrase that came from Larry Coker, head football coach at the University of Miami, who visited Thomas in the hospital. At press time, the Jordan Thomas Foundation had raised around $530,000.
Thomas says the new prosthetics provide more than mobility. “It provides [these kids] with the opportunity to live successful, happy, productive lives. It allows them to not be limited or defined by their disability. They can achieve whatever they want and maximize their potential.”
He also believes that these children—Alaina, Noah, Daniel and Samantha—have given him an even more valuable gift in return. “They don’t have a lot, but they’re so happy. They’re just incredible people,” Thomas says. “They’ve given me a general appreciation for life and a perspective that I didn’t have before them and before my accident.”
Now entering his junior year at the College of Charleston, Thomas lives a pretty typical life for a 21-year-old. Although he has his moments—like falling when getting out of the shower and realizing the “permanency” of his condition, he says—Thomas credits his incredible physical progress to sheer will and determination.
“You can overcome whatever obstacle you’re faced with,” he says. “We all have the capacity of doing great things. It’s just a question of working hard and getting it done. And truly anything is achievable if you truly believe in it and work hard.”
Goal-setting has been an important part of the healing process. “You have to look within and say what’s reasonable and what’s not and just work hard to achieve,” he says. “Of course, there are good days and bad days. There were days I was worried about playing golf well again and walking well again. I was just really determined and kept my head down and focused, and I didn’t let naysayers overwhelm me.”
Thomas stays motivated by his deep-seated desire to effect change. “They say, ‘To whom much is given, much is expected.’ I think I’ve been blessed with a lot of great things in my life. I think I’m in a position where I can help a lot of people, and that’s what I want to do. To improve the lives of everyone, and in return, that will help me. It has helped me.”
Although he’s majoring in international business and hopes to pursue a career in that field, his eponymous foundation will always be part of his focus, Thomas says.
“I want to expand in our outreach and the number of people we help. I want to raise awareness for my issue and to ensure that kids have prosthetics. The foundation will always be the key component in my life. It’s something I’ll do forever.”