Atlanta, GA,
18:00 PM

Shepherd Center unites with partners to bring a spinal cord-injured Ugandan priest to the hospital for rehabilitation.

Putting Together a Miracle

On a sunny afternoon in late October, Father Thomas Gabula went swimming. With a blue flotation device around his neck and a flat yellow flotation cushion beneath the small of his back, he floated on his back, smiling faintly, and rowed himself around the Shepherd Center pool.

It was the first time the gentle, 30-year-old Ugandan priest had ever been immersed in water, adding yet another chapter to a remarkable story.

"We've been keeping a list of his 'firsts,'" says his caregiver, Mary Goss, as she snapped his picture. "His first drinking fountain, his first iced tea, his first dishwasher, his first hamburger, his first sweet potato fry. And he's learned to sit up straight here, too. He never learned that before."

Father Thomas was injured on Oct. 3, 2009 in a motorbike accident while on his way to a parish outside Uganda's capital city of Kampala. The spinal cord injury left him paralyzed from the waist down, and after rods were inserted in his back, he was sent home with no hope for further treatment, rehabilitation or resuming his priestly duties. In Uganda, people with disabilities have uncertain futures, he says.

It is an East African country where life expectancy is 50 years, where people routinely go to sleep hungry and where people with disabilities are considered useless, Father Thomas says. For nearly two years, he lay in a room in a tiny brick row house or sat in a wheelchair with a blanket over him. Although he grew up in a large family, his only assistance came from a cousin, who fed, cleaned and lifted him in and out of bed each day.

"It's amazing that even without someone telling him, he kept Father Thomas' joints moving and avoided skin ulcerations," says physiatrist John Lin, M.D., who examined him at Shepherd.

Mary Goss is director of Catholic Relief Services in Trenton, N.J., which partners with a diocese in Uganda. She heard about Father Thomas on one of her trips and visited him several times.

"Here was this young guy who had no support and yet had held on to his faith and hope," Mary says. "I had a dream for him that we could improve his life and he could go back to his ministry as a priest. So I contacted my sister, and we started to work on it."

Connie Kay, Mary's sister, had been to Shepherd Center several times for rehabilitation of an incomplete spinal cord injury. When Mary called, Connie had just lost her life partner to brain cancer, learned that two of her grandchildren had lymphoma and was told her own dream of walking again was unrealistic because her bones were too weak.

"I needed not to dwell on my own pain," says Connie, who lives in The Villages, Fla. "I decided that I've got to get going. This is someone I can help, and I have people I can talk to."

While Mary focused on getting approval for Father Thomas and his cousin to come to the United States, Connie capitalized on the connections she'd made on her visits to Shepherd.

"Connie was very popular when she was here," says Darci Pernoud, Connie's occupational therapist in the Shepherd Center Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Day Program. "Everyone loved her."

Connie's first contact was Chaplain Alan Roof, who embraced the idea and introduced her to Medical Director Donald P. Leslie, M.D., and others.

"The great message was that here was a priest who would be able to make a difference in the lives of people in Uganda with disabilities," Roof says. "Shepherd shows people that a catastrophic injury isn't the end of life."

Sarah Morrison, program director of the SCI Program at Shepherd, told Connie, "I'm sure there's something we can do." And, indeed, Shepherd – through the generosity of its donors – provided housing, medical costs and treatment free of charge for Father Thomas.

Connie estimates that she spent 20 hours a week at her computer asking individuals and institutions for help and solving problems. Among those she contacted was Delta Air Lines executive David Martin, whom she had met when CNN featured Connie in a story about travel for people with disabilities.

She asked David if Delta's customer service personnel would assist Father Thomas at the airport, and David said Delta could do better than that. Delta would fly him from Amsterdam to Atlanta for free. And KLM Airlines, Delta's partner, made the same offer for the Uganda-to-Amsterdam leg.

When Father Thomas was finally granted a visa, Mary called him from New Jersey. It had taken her and Connie more than a year to get permission and make arrangements, but Mary hadn't said anything to Father Thomas for fear of giving him false hope.

"Are you sitting down?" she joked. Then she told him he was going to America. Father Thomas knew nothing about Shepherd Center, rehabilitation or America – except that everyone wanted to go there. Not only had he never ridden in an airplane, he'd never even seen one.

"I had no hope of coming out of my country," he says. "The chance that God has given me was a great surprise."

For the next several months, he lived in a state of confusion, never quite daring to believe this impossible dream. And then in July, two months before Father Thomas was to leave, a visa for his cousin Rogers was denied a second time. Without a caregiver, he couldn't go to Shepherd Center.

"There was obstacle after obstacle," Connie says, "but Mary and I wouldn't give up."

One of the people Connie copied on her emails was Darci Pernoud, and when she learned that Father Thomas needed a caregiver, she volunteered. It meant spending a month in an apartment at Shepherd rather than at home with her husband and dog.

"I passed it by my husband," Darci says, "and he was very supportive of it."

She also started a website and posted flyers asking for food, clothing and supplies. Cathy Kramer, an outpatient physical therapist at Shepherd, spotted the flyer and called Darci about traveling to Uganda. Months before, Cathy had volunteered for a mission trip to Uganda to work with orphans.

When she spoke with Darci just a few days before the mission trip began, she discovered that Father Thomas was just a few miles from where she would be. "I specialize in spinal cord injuries, and that's what he had," Cathy says. "I believe in my heart that's why God had me going to Uganda."

Cathy took donations of blankets, a fleece jacket and medical supplies with her and spent five hours with Father Thomas. She taught him basic self-care techniques, including how to transfer in and out of a chair and what to expect on an airplane.

When he and Father Jude, a fellow Ugandan priest, boarded the plane in Entebbe, Uganda, the entire KLM flight crew met them. When they boarded in Amsterdam, Delta's flight crew was there to meet them. When they landed in Atlanta, Darci, Cathy and Mary – whose husband consented to her coming to Atlanta for a month as a second caregiver – and Delta employees Sue Ellen Romero and Donna Tannett were there to meet them.

"It wasn't until I landed that I believed I was really here," Father Thomas says. "And I thought I will work harder not to frustrate everyone's efforts."

He not only worked hard, but also learned fast, and after four weeks in Shepherd Center's SCI Day Program, he was fully independent. But just days before Father Thomas was to leave, a kidney problem was detected, and Shepherd extended his stay another three weeks for treatment.

"If he'd gone home, his kidney would have failed," Mary says, "and he would have died. Another miracle."

But there were more obstacles ahead. He needed a home in Uganda that is wheelchair-accessible, something almost unheard of there. Also, serving as a parish priest, which requires frequent travel over terrible roads, was no longer an option, but he can teach or do administrative work.

"But I hope the bishop will give me time to go to hospitals and teach them what I know," he says. "My doctor wants me to teach him what I learned."

Changing Ugandans' attitude toward disability issues and giving hope to Ugandans with disabilities was Mary's dream for Father Thomas, and it is his, as well. Father Thomas' story is so remarkable that it has inspired and uplifted everyone who has played a part in it.

"Mary talks about miracles," Darci says, "and this whole story is about how friends, volunteers, co-workers, Delta, KLM and Shepherd Center staff and supporters donated services, meals, supplies and money to make it possible."

"It's a story of how there is still humanity in our society," Cathy says.

"Each of us had a piece to this puzzle," Connie says, "and we put it together, and it became a beautiful stained glass mosaic. It's a miracle."

Unable to come to Atlanta to see Father Thomas, Connie has nevertheless had a miracle of her own. "I've met a doctor here who specializes in osteoporosis," she says, "and she says my bones are stronger now than they were a year ago. I'm going to start learning to walk again."

It’s a story of how there Is stIll humanIty In our socIety.
Cathy Kramer

Written by John Christensen
Photography by Gary Meek and Cathy Kramer

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.