On a warm August afternoon in 2005, Tom Weaver and his buddy navigated their motorcycles along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina.
In a flash, the mountains, the trees and the picturesque scenery faded to black. Weaver’s life changed forever.
“I have no memory of the accident,” said Weaver, now 68. “According to my partner behind me, I drove into a guard rail. It’s sort of a mystery as to what happened. There was no other vehicle, no animals, no bad pavement.”
A helicopter airlifted Weaver to a trauma center in Asheville, North Carolina, where he spent the next 11 days. His wife, Karen, drove down from their Grand Rapids, Michigan, home.
“I had done quite a bit of damage,” Weaver said. “I had a big gash across the top of my head, even though I had a good helmet on. I fractured my C1 and C2. I was in a halo for 8 1/2 weeks. I broke my collarbone. They put a trach in because I had collapsed one lung and lacerated the other. I broke every single rib.”
All of the above would heal. But an injury deep within his spine would change life as he knew it.
“I had complete separation at T4,” Weaver said. “I can remember someone telling me, I don’t even remember if it was a doctor or a nurse, telling me, ‘You’ve got a spinal injury. You’re never going to walk again.’”
The injury left him paralyzed from the waist down.
Weaver took a medical flight back to Grand Rapids and spent another 2 1/2 weeks at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital, followed by intensive inpatient physical therapy.
Several months later, he returned home. But that was another issue.
The Weavers had moved into a condominium about a year prior to the crash.
“My motorcycle club built a ramp in the garage so I had access to that condo,” Weaver said. “There were a lot of people who did a lot of things.”
He and his wife bought a vacant lot in their condo development and built a new handicap accessible unit.
Weaver, at the time a math teacher at Jenison High School, missed the entire first semester. The following semester he went back to work part time.
“I taught two classes in the afternoon,” he said. “In the morning, I still had outpatient therapy. After that, I taught five more years full time.”
Weaver took on another job, too, as an adjunct professor at Grand Rapids Community College. He retired from Jenison High School in 2011, but continues to teach three classes at the community college.
Weaver isn’t just teaching, he’s learning—what it’s like to live life from a wheelchair. He is helping others learn how to make wheelchair life more user-friendly.
He doesn’t want to just talk about change; he strives to be part of the change.
His church is planning to construct an addition in the next year. Weaver joined a church committee to make sure the new building is accessible for all.
“We’ve had some other people ask about accessibility with houses or cottages they’re building,” he said. “I just give them friendly advice.”
If Weaver encounters a difficult-to-navigate office building or restaurant, he’ll point out—in a positive way, of course—what might be modified to improve it.
“If you approach people in the right way, they’re very receptive,” Weaver said. “There was a restaurant that had an outdoor deck with all picnic tables. It was a nice patio, but there wasn’t one place for a wheelchair. There was no large overhang on one end or movable benches. We talked to the manager: ‘If we can’t go out on your deck in good weather, this is not an option for us to come here anymore.’”
The following summer, they returned to the establishment and found revisions in the outdoor seating.
“There were a number of places where a wheelchair could pull up,” Weaver said.
Most places he visits in the United States have great accessibility. Difficulty is the exception, not the norm, he said.
“We are so thankful to be living in the United States,” Weaver said. “We used to travel out to Boston and go through Canada. We’d cut through to Buffalo. We pulled into a gas station and tried to use the restroom and the only way into the gas station was a step. We stopped at other places that have bathrooms outside that you can’t get into. You just can’t be guaranteed anything. In the U.S., you can.”
Tom and Karen also joined the acute care Spectrum Health Patient Family Advisory Council.
“Everyone has eyes for different things,” Weaver said. “They’re just looking for opinions. We thought it was something we could do and maybe make some contributions.”
Deb Sprague, improvement specialist for the Patient and Family Advisory Councils, said Tom and Karen have been valuable additions to the team.
The Weavers help Spectrum Health leadership think differently about accessibility and assistance that may be needed for patients, families and community members who navigate Spectrum Health locations, Sprague said.
“Tom has partnered with us through the renovations of the Butterworth Emergency Triage space, providing insights to the adjacent parking ramp along with the future path of the Butterworth ED discharge,” Sprague said. “He has brought awareness to how nursing care can improve experiences for patients in wheelchairs. The leaders greatly appreciate how Tom and Karen are advocates for those with disabilities and how active they are in the community.”
An uplift for down days
Much has changed for the Weavers since that dreadful Aug. 20, 2005, incident.
Weaver may not be able to walk, but he’s been able to resume living. He volunteers at his church, lifts weights in his wheelchair in his basement and is part of a hand-cycle team.
“I do a number of races every year,” he said. “I’ve done the Fifth Third River Bank race 11 or 12 times. I’ve done the Grand Rapids Marathon and a number of shorter local races. The 5K and 10Ks are always fun to do.”
He and Karen used to serve as ushers at Grand Rapids Civic Theater. He can no long climb the stairs, but he hasn’t let the curtain close on volunteering there.
“Now I will do will call or work the door,” Weaver said. “I still do that for every show.”
Weaver said he learned from his therapists that drive and a positive attitude can uplift many a down day.
“We don’t take the future for granted like we used to,” he said. “They say whatever your personality is, that really doesn’t change because of an accident, barring a brain injury. If you’ve been optimistic and look on the bright side and attack problems before your accident, you’ll continue to do that and live that way after your accident.”
There are frustrations, but his fortitude helps him forge a path onward.
“Some days you get frustrated or angry with how long things take,” he said. “You drop something and it rolls out of reach and you’ve got no way to get it.
“But you learn to live with it and work around problems,” he said. “Even to this day, I find myself learning to do different things, different ways to transfer, how to approach a problem. You continue to find out what you can do, what you’re capable of.”