It was May of last year when Chase Thomas, pediatric nurse practitioner and owner of Pediatrics Plus in Anniston, planned to spend a relaxing weekend with his wife, Emily Thomas, at their lake house on Logan Martin.
But first — golf.
“Chase plays golf every Friday afternoon with the same group of friends,” Emily said. “I went on ahead to the lake and he was going to join me later.”
Instead, she received a call from John Lindsey, one of the golf players. Chase had been in an accident and needed to go to the emergency room. “He told me Chase had a gash on his head, the result of a thrown golf club, and they were waiting for an ambulance,” she said. “I could hear Chase talking in the background and John saying, ‘It’s OK, buddy, you’re going to be OK.’”
Chase knew better.
“When I realized I had no use of my left side and saw the blood everywhere, I knew it was bad,” he said.
Emily headed for Regional Medical Center, where she learned the injury was worse than she originally thought — an open skull fracture with a bone fragment lodged in the brain. “Chase was coherent,” she said. “But he told me he couldn’t move his left side.”
It was decided to airlift him to Huntsville Hospital, which boasts a national reputation for neurosurgery. “I was told to drive straight there because they would be doing surgery as soon as he landed,” Emily said.
She arrived just in time to see her husband before the operation. “He was still coherent, but was telling me where the life insurance papers were, who to call, and to tell his kids he loved them,” she said. “It was a very emotional conversation.”
She told him he would be fine, but he shook his head.
“Once I knew a bone fragment was lodged in my brain, I knew that was it,” Chase said. “I didn’t see a way back from it. As soon as they put the mask on my face, I thought — ‘Well, this is it. I’m never waking up.’”
‘A miracle in itself’
During the six-hour surgery, the waiting room filled with Chase and Emily’s friends and family members, driving in from all over the state. When the operation was finished, the neurosurgeon, Dr. Holly Zywicke, met with Emily in a conference room and explained the situation. “The bone fragment was very deep in his brain and if she didn’t remove it, he would die,” Emily remembered. “But at the same time, the brain had swelled to a point that if she had to dig, he would also die.”
Until that moment, Emily didn’t realize how close to death Chase had come. “He had been awake and talking when I saw him,” she said. “With him being so lucid, it gave me a false sense of well-being.”
The surgeon decided to perform a craniotomy to alleviate the tremendous pressure on Chase’s brain.
Emily describes what happened next as “a miracle in itself.” When the skull was opened, the release of pressure was so powerful, it shot the bone fragment out of the brain.
Later, when she saw him in the intensive care unit, Emily remembers Chase greeting her with a big smile, saying “I made it!”
It was, however, only the beginning. The next step was taking him off a ventilator to see if he could breathe on his own. He was monitored around the clock and suffered bouts of pain that were uncontrolled by medication.
Even after he was discharged and sent home, he had a long way to go for a full recovery.
“I knew, no matter what, I wanted to get back to work and back on the golf course,” he said. “No matter how long it took, I was going to make it happen.”
It was the little things, such as holding a drinking glass or tying a shoelace, that presented daily challenges.
“I watched him pick up buttons and drop them into a cup,” Emily said. “His brain was telling his fingers to open and close, but the reaction was delayed.”
It would be quite a while before he could drive a car, but after only two weeks home, he was anxious to get back to work. He didn’t see patients, but he was able to sit at his desk and handle paperwork, and he continued with exhaustive therapy sessions, including one of his own design — returning to the golf course, where he worked on his putting skills.
A foundation to help others
Throughout the surgery and recovery, Chase and Emily were overwhelmed by an outpouring of love and support. It inspired them to share that love with others going through similar circumstances. Because Chase specializes in pediatrics, they decided to focus their efforts on children with brain injuries.
At Children’s of Alabama hospital in Birmingham, they met with a social worker who assisted families of patients with head injuries. “We determined the best way to help was by supplying gift cards for food, gas and lodging,” Emily said.
As a result, the Chase Thomas Strong Foundation was born. The first fundraiser, a tailgate party last fall, raised more than $18,000. A golf tournament this past spring attracted 80 players and raised $17,500.
On the one-year anniversary of his accident, Chase received an unusual gift — the golf club that hit him, framed — given to him by the friend who had thrown it. “The friend was overcome with guilt and stayed with us around the clock at the hospital, but we all knew it was just a freak accident,” Emily said, “Clubs get thrown in frustration all the time.” The two men remain close friends and continue to play golf together every week.
In January, Chase was officially released by his neurologist with no need for any further follow-up visits. “The only residual issue is a lack of feeling in the fingertips of his left hand,” Emily said. “Otherwise he is completely recovered.”
For more information about the Chase Thomas Strong Foundation, visit stronglikechase.org.
Donna Barton’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at email@example.com.