Posted on Apr 21, 2016 in Campus News and News
“On Sunday, a life changing accident occurred. I am moving on to a new chapter in my life. I want to say thank you to everyone for your support and prayers.” – Tom Babb
The waves were crashing, but Tom Babb couldn’t feel anything. His limp body, face down in the ocean, was being tossed around near shore, yet he was awake, conscious. He would later say he knew immediately that he was paralyzed. In shock, he at least had the presence of mind to hold his breath, he said.
“I thought I was going to die.”
Sunday, December 27
Tom had just finished his first semester as a freshman at KU. After graduating from Evergreen High School in Colorado, he moved to Lawrence and pledged Beta Theta Pi, where he made new friends among his fraternity pledge class and embraced life as a regular college student. His family was spending the holidays in Maui over winter break.
That Sunday, just two days after Christmas, was beautiful when Tom headed down to Maui’s Ka’anapali Beach to play in the waves.
“It was just a normal day,” he recalled. “I did what I had been doing all day. I just jumped into a wave. I instantly hit the ground, and then my whole body went numb. I knew I was paralyzed right away.”
Within moments, Tom’s dad and several others ran over to assist Tom, including doctors who happened to be nearby. Paramedics rushed him to the nearest hospital, a 45-minute drive from the beach. He was later flown to a hospital on Oahu where he would undergo a seven-hour surgery. Unable to breathe on his own, he was put on a ventilator, with doctors unsure whether he would ever be able to breathe on his own again.
While his friends were preparing to move back to campus for spring semester, Tom was back in Colorado preparing for months of rigorous rehabilitation at Craig Hospital in Englewood, a hospital specializing in spinal cord injury rehabilitation. Tom and his family faced a long and challenging road to recovery.
It wouldn’t be easy for any of them, his mother, Christa, admitted. “I’m in a zone right now, and I know that this zone is going to be forever, but it’s going to get better,” she said. “You don’t have a choice. You just have to go forward.”
Among the things that would motivate Tom during this transformative time was the opportunity to return to KU one day—as a regular student.
He woke up smiling
A Facebook page called Prayers for Tom Babb was created by his family where updates on his grueling rehabilitation could be shared. Tom and his family endured long days of tedious rehab routines. Then, just 16 days after the accident that paralyzed him, hope came in the simplest expression.
“Christa and I discussed what I am about to say several times today before we decided that it was real enough to actually say out loud to all the people following this journey,” Tom’s father, Steve, wrote. “We both used the word ‘surreal’ today to describe our experience.”
If a picture is worth a thousand words, this one spoke volumes. Initially told by doctors that he might never be able breathe on his own again, he did. Tom was finally able to free his face of the breathing apparatus that covered it, and he was reconciling his situation with equal measures of inner peace and determination.
“He woke up today smiling and thinking realistically, but optimistically,” Steve shared. “And he ended his day with the same spirit. The picture is an image of the young man who emerged from the fog today, ready to kick butt in a life where the hard reset button was unexpectedly hit. Add to that our recognition that our family is transforming and growing stronger in ways that defy circumstances.”
In addition to their son’s newfound attitude and resilience in the face of a life-altering reality, the experience also was bringing the family closer together. Through difficult and private conversations, Steve and Christa decided they were ready, and perhaps even eager, to let others in. They wanted to share what they felt was a profound sense of hope with family, friends and Tom’s fraternity brothers following their family’s journey.
“Christa and I are so in awe of how Adam and Claire (Tom’s brother and sister) are handling this and building us up with the combination of their transparent humanness, strength, love and faith. Our sense of love between one another, as husband and wife, and as a family is greater than ever before.
“Surreal is exactly the right word.”
The Beta Theta Pi pledge class of 2019, known within the fraternity as PC’19, was initiated on Feb. 7, in a formal ceremony at Usher Mansion on Tennessee Street, the traditional home of the fraternity. But the absence of one pledge class member left the ceremony incomplete.
Will DeVries, pledge class president, knew that Tom would be initiated, but exactly how and when would take some planning. He and a few friends had visited Tom at Craig Hospital to watch the KU-Kentucky game on TV, but even the epic contest couldn’t distract him from the harsh reality his friend faced. In an interview with the Lawrence Journal-World, DeVries admitted the gravity of the situation hit home when he saw Tom for the first time since the accident.
“When he rolled up it increased the realness factor,” DeVries told the Journal-World. “That’s when everyone really understood the intensity of the situation.”
Shortly after initiation, plans were made to pile as many Beta brothers as possible into cars to caravan west for a private initiation ceremony and celebration. As word spread, generous alumni helped the fraternity charter a bus to transport more than 50 members—almost half of the house—to Colorado.
In a lively gathering Feb. 20 in his hometown of Evergreen, Tom spent hours with brothers and felt like a college student again. As motivating as it was for Tom, the experience was equally uplifting for his brothers.
“I don’t think there was a single dry cheek there,” Joe Simmons, Beta vice president external told Kansas City’s Fox4 News. “It was very, very emotional.”
“It was an amazing day,” his family later shared on Facebook. “He was out of the hospital having genuine fun for 12 hours.”
Tom called it the best day of his life, and it strengthened his resolve to return to KU.
Friends in the Beta house began planning for Tom’s return almost immediately after the accident. Given Tom’s disability, they knew the house would require renovations, including wider doors and special bathroom and shower facilities on the first level.
The Hutt, as it is informally known by members of the Alpha Nu chapter, was built in 1873 as the home of John Palmer Usher, who was secretary of the interior under President Abraham Lincoln. Its transformation to a fraternity house, including its last major renovation in 1992, updated the fraternity—listed on the National Register of Historic Places—to a more modern facility, though still not one ready to accommodate Tom’s unique situation. Funds would be needed for the improvements.
Then something interesting happened: The students began to think bigger.
Tom’s pledge dad, John Killen Jr., said they wanted to do something for other students with similar needs who might come to KU. Engaging alumni, the KU Greek community and University officials at KU Endowment and Student Access Services, a fund was created to provided assistance to students like Tom. With a goal of raising $30,000, the Tom Babb Student Accessibility Fund would provide up to $1,300 to qualifying incoming students once fully funded.
Drawing upon his background in running, Killen set his sights on hosting a 5k run, with lofty goals of attracting 300 participants to help raise funds. Leveraging the popular hashtag that was already being used by the Babb family, the #TomStrong 5k Run/Walk/Roll was created.
This week, with donations already reaching the $30,000 mark, a new goal of $40,000 has been established, thanks to the help of an anonymous donor who pledged to match the next $5,000 in gifts. Regardless of the final tally, Killen said he’s been “blown away” by the outpouring of support from everyone, including the Beta’s neighboring sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta. Thanks to the help of Olivia Feathers, the sorority’s philanthropy chair, almost 200 volunteers have stepped up to assist.
“They have definitely made us stronger,” Killen confessed.
“If 50 people going to visit him was the best day of his life,” Killen told the University Daily Kansan, “I can only imagine what over 300 people showing up for him will mean to Tom.” As of today, more than 600 supporters have registered for the event, which will be held this Sunday, April 24, at 9 a.m. Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little has even agreed to address the crowd, according to Killen.
Tom and his family will arrive in Lawrence today, his first time on campus since the accident. No one can imagine what it will be like for him, but he will be just a little bit closer to achieving his goal of being a “regular” KU student.
He will be welcomed by a community of support, thanks in large part to the spirited efforts of his fraternity brothers. Their forward-thinking plans to create an endowment for future disabled KU students like Tom calls to mind a poem, passed down in the fraternity for generations, about a bridge builder.
An old man going a lone highway,
Came, at the evening cold and gray,
To a chasm vast and deep and wide.
Through which was flowing a sullen tide
The old man crossed in the twilight dim,
The sullen stream had no fear for him;
But he turned when safe on the other side
And built a bridge to span the tide.
“Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim near,
“You are wasting your strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day,
You never again will pass this way;
You’ve crossed the chasm, deep and wide,
Why build this bridge at evening tide?”
The builder lifted his old gray head;
“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
“There followed after me to-day
A youth whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm that has been as naught to me
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be;
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him!”
–The Bridge Builder by Will Allen Dromgoole