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Charleston student turns accident into action

CHARLESTON - Who would do it?

Who repeatedly would delve into the details of that moment when you learned that some life-altering accident or disease had changed the arc of your life? Who would plumb the bottomless depths of the instant when you knew nothing ever would be the same again? Who would not bury that instant, brick it over and try to move on?

Jordan Thomas, 20-year-old College of Charleston student, double amputee, foundation founder.

That's who.

But why?

A NIGHTMARE REALIZED

During a spectacular fall day last week, when College of Charleston students were flitting about in shorts and shades, Jordan sat on a couch in the living room of the home where he lives, offering up the worst moments of his life.

Gratefully.

He took a visitor back to that August day in 2005 when he was a rising high school junior from Chattanooga, Tenn., the good-looking, athletic son of a pair of doctors.

He explained, in casual detail, how he and his parents had traveled to the Florida Keys on a spearfishing-and-snorkeling trip and how he was the first with his gear on and the first off the boat and into the water.

One of the big waves that roiled the water that day moved him toward the boat, Jordan explained. His mother, at the helm, moved the boat in a direction she thought would keep it from hitting her son.

Instead . . .

"It was one of those weird things where I knew what happened immediately," Jordan said. "I looked down ... and I didn't see my black fins. I just saw blood everywhere. I never lost consciousness."

The motor of the boat had badly mangled Jordan's feet and lower legs. His parents, neonatal specialists Liz and Victor Thomas, could not merely shriek in anguish. They could not lose themselves to the terror that they might have just lost their boy.

They were five miles from shore.

"My mom put my legs up on her shoulder to slow the bleeding," Jordan said. "My dad got on the radio and called an ambulance."

Liz Thomas moved from doctor to mom and back again.

"I could be both," she said. "I was very grateful to know what to do. I knew this was bad. I knew we were five miles out. I knew he was bleeding. I had time to wrap my arms around him and tell him that I adored him and that he was the most important thing to me - ever."

Jordan Thomas felt his mother's embrace. But he said there was another embrace, too, from something he could not see.

"I had a warmth come over my body," he said. "Like I was being held."

Jordan was flown by helicopter to the hospital. He lost almost half the blood in his body.

Worse, the athletic boy who was an avid bowler and captain of his golf team, lost both feet. Doctors amputated his legs from mid-calf down.

'THE TRAIN IS LEAVING THE STATION'

"Waking up in the hospital, I never really had that moment: 'Oh, my God, where are my legs?'" Jordan said.

It took only a couple of days for Jordan to grow bored with the walls of his hospital room.

He had to get out, he said.

His doctor - the wife of his parents' medical school classmate - told him about the children's wing of the hospital.

And so the teenager who had lost both lower legs went to visit children who were, as he said, "less fortunate than me."

In the children's wing, Jordan met several children who fit that description. But one, a 7-year-old boy named Larry, reached something deep in him, Jordan said.

The boy was a foster child who had been burned over 70 percent of his body. His hopes of adoption were gone, but he clung to another unusual dream.

"He wanted to be a weatherman," Jordan said. "He had the weather section of the paper with him every day - just the weather section."

Jordan said time with Larry and the other children in the hospital gave him a purpose, a focus.

"I saw that innocence," he said of Larry. "He, obviously, did a lot for me. He was kind of the catalyst."

Before he left the hospital, Jordan told his parents there was something he needed to do. He would start a foundation to help children. He would lobby for health care changes. He would raise money. He would make sure children who lost limbs got prosthetics.

Teenage bravado? A failure to truly process what had happened to him?

Maybe it would be best, Liz Thomas thought, to put that idea aside and confront the new and difficult reality of a life without legs. Maybe Jordan could be persuaded to focus on himself.

"It occurred to us," Liz Thomas said. "But we're talking about Jordan. That's not Jordan. That's not how he is. We could get on board or not. The train is leaving the station."

BUILDING A FOUNDATION

Friends and family in Chattanooga rallied behind Jordan. They learned what he wanted to do, and they donated money.

Larry Coker, then the head football coach at the University of Miami, had visited Jordan in the hospital and signed a picture of himself.

"Press on," the coach urged him.

Jordan had blue bracelets inscribed with that message and sold them to raise money.

He had been in the hospital for 16 days. By February, he was skiing on vacation with his parents.

He had stormed angrily out of a counselor's office.

"All the guy does is sit there and tell me what I can't do," Liz Thomas remembered her son telling her. "He has no idea. He can't know."

The Jordan Thomas Foundation already was up and running.

Back in school, he asked a friend to the junior prom.

Later, Jordan asked that friend's aunt, who worked as a fundraiser for a local Christian school, to work for his foundation.

"I said, 'Well, you're just 20 years old. Shouldn't I ask your parents?'" Janet Jobe said.

But Jobe signed on. And in the first four years of the foundation's existence, it has raised $400,000, a figure that probably will surge toward $500,000 once the proceeds of this year's annual fundraiser are counted.

Praise for Jordan's work has poured in.

He won national and international awards from the International Association of Fundraising Professionals.

He won the National Courage Award from the National Courage Center, a Minneapolis-based rehabilitation center for children and adults with disabilities.

From 9,000 nominations, he was one of 52 people selected as a CNN Hero. That designation brought $25,000 to Jordan's foundation.

The public now can vote, at cnn.com/heroes, to have Jordan named as the network's Hero of the Year. People can vote as many times as they want until Nov. 19. The network will announce the winner during a Thanksgiving Day broadcast.

Jordan's foundation will get $100,000 if he wins.

FINDING PURPOSE

And so that's why.

That's why, on that spectacular fall day last week, when his classmates were enjoying the radiant sunshine, Jordan was diving into that water again, telling his story again, examining that pain again.

Attention could mean votes. Votes could mean winning. And winning means more help.

One set of prosthetics cost about $24,000, Jordan said. Children need a new set of prosthetics every 18 months or so, he said.

Insurance companies typically cover $5,000 in prosthetics costs - once.

Jordan personally has lobbied members of Congress to expand the coverage of prosthetics.

Legislation now being considered would expand that coverage, but Jordan said he won't rest until the proposed changes become law.

His foundation commits to meeting the prosthetics costs for needy children until they are 18 years old.

So far, the foundation has made commitments to three children.

Before he rose from his couch to show a visitor out last week, he lifted the pant leg from one prosthetic to reveal what it looks like. He said his own prosthetics will need to be replaced at some point in the months ahead, something he dreads because it takes a week to do the fitting.

That's a week he could be swimming or golfing or doing something else - anything else.

"I'm still coming to grips with this," he said. "What helps is all the good that has come from this."

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