07/12/06 — Carson Thomas, family take new road

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Carson Thomas, family take new road

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on July 12, 2006 1:50 PM

Eights months have passed since Heather Thomas got the call that her 14-year-old son, Carson, had been struck by a car while crossing the street in front of Greenwood Middle School.

She remembers the day like it was yesterday, still.

But even with all that has passed since that November day, Mrs. Thomas says she and her family are moving forward to the next step -- and have realized a lot about themselves and their family, friends and community in the process.

Mrs. Thomas still chokes back tears as she recalls the journey her family has been on since the phone rang within minutes after the Nov. 18 accident.

"It probably happened around 7:30, we got the call around 7:40," she said. "They told us he had been in an accident, we had to go to the hospital."

Husband Doug was home recovering from back surgery he had in September. Younger son, Victor, then a fourth-grader at Meadow Lane Elementary School, hadn't left the house yet for school, so he accompanied his parents to Wayne Memorial.

It wasn't until they arrived that they were told Carson was in a coma. Mrs. Thomas said she had not even stopped to think that the accident might have severely injured her son.

"All the way there I was thinking -- bumps and scrapes, he was in observation. You've got to think good things," she said.

Carson had to be airlifted to Pitt Memorial Hospital in Greenville, where the family would hold vigil for the next two and a half months.

Looking back now, Mrs. Thomas said she realizes just how hard it was to wait.

"I wouldn't have known I could have handled all that I have handled this year," she said. It was, she added, the perfect example of "all you can do is pray."

And the support of others helped, too.

"All the prayers -- I can't even talk about all the prayers, worldwide. They are what kept us going."

With Carson hooked up to machines and the outcome uncertain, Mrs. Thomas said they learned much about what happens when someone has severe closed head traumatic brain injury.

"In that situation, you have no abilities except prayer. That's all you have ever got. I couldn't do anything. I couldn't put a wet wash rag on his head, nothing," she said.

Among their supporters were friends from the base, Tom and Robin Stephenson, whose son, Tommy, knew Carson through Scouts and would later complete an outdoor classroom at Greenwood as part of an Eagle Scout project in honor of his friend.

"They were probably the first people to arrive at the hospital, and the last ones to leave," Mrs. Thomas said. Pitching in where needed, she said the Stephensons "fed our dogs, watered our plants, cleaned our house. They ran interference for us as far as updating people."

To remain with his family, Victor spent the last nine weeks of the semester being tutored on his schoolwork in Greenville. In January, when Carson was transferred to a rehab facility there, Victor returned to Goldsboro and his parents took turns between the two boys.

Since Carson's release, he has continued to receive occupational, physical and speech therapies. Progress has been slow, Mrs. Thomas says, but it happens every day.

The toughest part has been communication. Her teenage son is still unable to speak.

"Carson's a talker. He's very, very verbal so that's been really, really hard," she said. "We know he has the ability, and he'll get there eventually. He's come this far."

A dry erase board allows Carson to indicate "yes" or "no" when asked questions. And there is nonverbal communication, Mrs. Thomas said.

"I have seen him smile. I have seen his personality come strong through. He's tough. He's a survivor is what he is," she said.

Considering the extent of his injuries, the proud mother says, that's a lot to be grateful for.

"A lot of people thought he was dead because he wasn't responding" after the accident, she said.

"I want to thank the many people -- the people that stopped that morning, the EMTs, the police, everyone that was there at the scene. Because the truth of the matter is if it wasn't for that and modern medicine, he would be dead."

Mrs. Thomas says she is also grateful that doctors did not give a prognosis at the outset. She said it was helpful that physicians remained encouraging.

The array of doctors, from trauma to neurology and intensive care, "were faithful people and you could tell that they did not want to say anything because they knew they were not in charge," she said.

Some did have to deliver some "pretty tough news," she says, but "basically they were telling us the science, and we knew better, we knew who was the healer."

And that faith in a power outside themselves is part of what has kept the Thomas family going. That, Mrs. Thomas said, and the support and faith of people they have never even met.

"We had several churches in Goldsboro, more than we know, who put him on the prayer chain, sent us donations and different things ... from all over the place," she said. "We would get things in the mail and not know who they were from."

Such gestures made a lot of difference, she said. They ultimately contributed to the Thomas' decision to buy a house and retire in Goldsboro.

"We didn't know where we'd retire. Apparently the decision was made for us," she said.

Initially living at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, the military helped the family move to a handicapped facility on base. The Thomases later decided to move into town and make their stay permanent.

Members of their own church, the base chapel, helped with the move. All along the way, in fact, chaplains and parishioners alike have embraced and supported the family.

One member, Aaron Taylor, and the youth minister D.J. Coles, recently approached the Thomases about a fundraising effort for the family. The event will be held Thursday night at Pizza Inn on Ash Street. Sponsored by the chapel youth ministries from 5:30 to 9 p.m., Coles said 10 percent of proceeds during that time will go to the Thomas family.

Mrs. Thomas said that such overwhelming acts of generosity have been a bit daunting.

"We had people donate money while we were in Greenville and that money was used, believe me," she said, ticking off a list that included such necessities as meals and gas to travel back and forth. "But there's no real specific equipment piece or something like that ... just the regular expenses that pop up."

She is still surprised by the outpouring of kindness that has come from the community to which her family only moved four years ago.

" All you have to do is say 'Carson' and people know who you're talking about," she said. "We didn't realize what an impact this made in the community while we were in Greenville. It wasn't until we moved back in February that we realized how it was affecting the community as a whole. We were just too removed from the situation."

Expressing gratitude hardly seems sufficient, she said.

"I just can't thank the community enough. They continue to wish us well. Still, two moves later, people are still finding us and sending us things....It has showed the best of small towns and the best of what the Air Force can for a family."

As for their ability to remain calm and resilient, Mrs. Thomas said, "It probably goes to being a military family. We have been a pretty strong family, our whole family life.

"We've always kind of relied on each other as a family, and with the community of course. That's probably how we're managing now. We have great chapel support, great community support."

Overall, she says the family is "doing OK. We're starting to get a little stability, a little more routine. We have some help. Lots of people have offered anything I need, just give them a call, and they mean it. I know they mean it."

Mrs. Thomas said she will continue to expect miracles. Citing a recent news story about a man who woke up and spoke after being in a coma for 19 years, she believes no less can happen for her own son.

"He's a miracle. He's been a miracle since day one, and I'm talking his day one. He was a preemie when he was born," she said. "Please continue to pray. We have got a long road. Anytime you have got a last little breath before you go to sleep, just say, 'Carson.'"