Atlanta, GA,
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A Triathlete’s Comeback

Former patient Tommy Vance recovers from a spinal cord injury he sustained in a plane crash to competes in triathlon

The 2011 triathlon season ended with Carrollton, Ga., attorney Tommy Vance a little frustrated with the times he recorded.

That Tommy is competing in these races at 64 years old doesn’t register on the scale of what is remarkable about his story.

On Sept. 8, 2010, a small, private plane in which Tommy was a passenger crashed near McRae, Ga., in a heavily wooded area less than three miles from the runway. The pilot was killed in the fiery wreckage. Tommy, battered and bloodied from head to toe, was spared.

The events immediately following the crash are remarkable. But Tommy only knows about it second hand – from rescue workers.

“I have post-traumatic amnesia,” Tommy explains. “There’s a four-day period that I have no memory of, thankfully. It is a blessing that I don’t remember what happened. The last thing I remember was driving to the airport in Carrollton and seeing Dan, my friend, who was the pilot. The next thing I remember is four days later.”

When Tommy’s plane crashed, an elderly man who lived nearby heard the noise and was able to point rescue workers to the aircraft wreckage. “If he hadn’t heard us, I’m not sure what would have happened because we were deep in the woods,” Tommy says.

According to rescue workers – who Tommy has since thanked over some barbecue in McRae – Tommy was conscious, alert, in a lot of pain and trapped in the plane when they arrived on the scene. The crew had to use “Jaws of Life” to cut out an aircraft seat so they could free Tommy from the wreckage.

It took 70 stitches to stop the bleeding on his head. He broke both ankles and five ribs, fractured his right elbow, tore the rotator cuff in his left shoulder and sustained a lumbar spinal fracture. He underwent surgery in Macon and was transferred to Shepherd Center, where he spent three weeks in rehabilitation.

Tommy knew of Shepherd Center’s reputation for excellent outcomes before his crash. But seeing what he saw while rehabilitating gave him a new appreciation of the work doctors, nurses and therapists do at Shepherd Center.

“I had knowledge of the hospital through my friend and board member, Duncan Beard,” Tommy explains. “I had a great deal of respect for Shepherd Center before my injury.

Now, I know it is unquestionably the finest institution I’ve ever been associated with.

“I’m sorry I learned about it the way I did, but it was so rewarding to see the upbeat people and the attitudes people have there every day,” he adds. “I don’t know how they do it every single day. The patients are upbeat; the staff is upbeat. The people who work there are unbelievably well trained. They motivate, but do not coddle you, and they adjust to each patient.”

Tommy knew he was surrounded by patients who had more severe injuries. It made him grateful that he wasn’t hurt worse. But that doesn’t mean the initial days after the crash were easy.

“By the time I got to Shepherd Center, the troubling thing for me was a fear of the unknown,” he recalls. “They had gotten me out of bed in Macon, but it was extremely painful. I could walk five feet at first. By the time, I left there, it was like 10 yards. I knew it was going to be tough. Just how permanent it might be is what concerned me.

“After a week or so at Shepherd, I started thinking my improvement was steady enough that I’d be able to get back to an active lifestyle,” says Tommy, who has participated in triathlons for nearly three decades. “Now, I don’t have stabbing pains anywhere. I’m aware of where the fractures were, but I am very fortunate to have recovered so well.”

Shepherd Center physician Gerald Bilsky, M.D., knew Tommy had an excellent chance of making a good recovery, he says. But to the point of being able to participate in triathlons again?

Not so much.

“I expected him to be active and independent, but I couldn’t predict he would go back to triathlons,” he says. “There is a certain amount of luck involved, and he worked hard. The acute care hospital did the right things initially, and we helped him recover with a comprehensive rehabilitation program. Plus, people who are athletically inclined tend to do better. But no doubt about it, he was lucky.”

After returning home, Tommy continued therapy in Carrollton with the notion he was not going to miss the 2011 triathlon season.

“Now, I’m doing the same things – golf, running, swimming, biking,” he says. “I am close to normal on the bike. In swimming and running, I’m slower, though. I need more strength to return in my back and shoulders, more range of motion.”

The triathlon season will heat up again this spring, and Tommy is committed to shaving some time off his 2011 results.

“But I am 64 and did have those injuries,” he adds. “All in all, I’m pretty pleased with how I did.”

Written by Bill Sanders

Photography by Louie Favorite

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.