Tom Smith could look back on his life with bitterness and say he’s a two-time loser because he was paralyzed twice while playing ice hockey.
But Smith has chosen to see himself as a two-time miracle because after each horrific injury he was able to climb out of his wheelchair and walk again.
Or ride a bike again, as was the case with Smith’s 2,100-mile journey from Boston to the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. Smith departed March 25 from his hometown and finished May 1 at the entrance to the place he credits with getting him back on his feet.
His Reality Ride Challenge was a rolling message of possibility and mobility, and raised $100,000 for the Miami Project and the Buoniconti Fund.
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Smith rode through sleet in New England, pollen in the Carolinas, extreme heat in Florida and three unplanned, scary detours onto I-95. He got sick twice, and had to be treated for inflammation around his heart and a double ear infection. Because he lacks feeling in his hips and his right leg and foot, he rode a bike designed by his uncle that enabled him to maintain his balance by looking into a large mirror that acted as a gyroscope attached over the front tire.
“Even though the ride was grueling, and I was tempted to abandon it, I kept thinking of the pain and suffering that paralysis caused me and my family, and Marc Buoniconti and his family, and so many others around the world,” he said. “I was determined to offer a beacon of hope, to make myself an example, and to finish the ride where I got my second chance in life.”
Smith, 25, also used the ride to spread the word on his mission to make hockey a safer game with the installation of a painted 40-inch-wide orange zone around the perimeter of rinks. Similar to baseball’s warning track abutting outfield walls, the “Look-up Line” would alert players skating with their heads down to the proximity of the boards. In both of Smith’s hockey accidents, he crashed head-first into the boards.
“I still love hockey so much that I would like to make the sport better,” he said. “Hockey has been the most resistant to change and that’s why we continue to see problems with head injuries.”
Smith learned to play hockey on the frozen ponds of his native Swampscott, on Boston’s North Shore.
“At age three, the day he got on skates, he took off across the ice,” said Smith’s mother, Diane. “He was the kid who would cry at the front door because he wanted to go out. He was always moving. As an athlete and hockey player, it was his speed that distinguished him.”
Smith was a promising junior player at the Pingree School and for the Boston Bulldogs when he suffered his first spinal injury in August 2008. He was chasing down an opponent on a breakaway and tried to jump over his prone goalie when his skates caught on the goalie’s helmet and he flew into the boards.
“When I woke up in the hospital, I tried to reach over to squeeze my mom’s hand and kiss her and I couldn’t move,” he said.
Smith had not broken his neck but the damage to four cervical vertebrae, bruising to his spinal cord and brain trauma prompted Boston doctors to give him a grim prognosis: He would remain in a wheelchair.
Smith sought a second opinion from neurosurgeon Barth Green, president and co-founder of the Miami Project.
“We did high-resolution MRI scans, delved a little deeper and found that although he didn’t have the fractured bones of a hangman’s injury, he had twisting and disruption of the ligaments at the base of the skull,” Green said. “We devised a program to strengthen that area of the neck.”
Smith worked five days a week on the machines, treadmills and electrical stimulation equipment at the Miami Project with Miami Physical Therapy Associates therapist Miriam Guanche, whom he calls “one of my angels.” His brother Chris, who was living in Delray Beach, drove him back to his apartment for pool therapy. Then Smith would go to the local Gold’s Gym for another two-hour workout.
By the summer of 2009, Smith still had some numbness in his chest but had regained full use of his arms and legs and wanted to return to hockey. Green gave the all clear. Smith rejoined the Bulldogs and tested as the fittest player during training camp.
During practice on Oct. 1, 2009, lightning struck twice. Smith was tripped up by a teammate and fell awkwardly into the boards. He chipped the T-3 vertebra between his shoulder blades. Again, the chances for recovery were low.
“He had the misfortune to get hurt in a different part of his body,” Green said. “We could have told him to join a monastery instead of returning to hockey, but maybe the big guy up in the sky decided that someone has to make hockey safer, and that someone would be Tom.”
At first, Smith was too depressed to think about another long haul through rehab.
“I was cursing everybody, wondering how it was that I’d have a better chance of winning the lottery
five times in a row than having these two unrelated accidents, and asking, ‘Why me?’” Smith said. “One night in the hospital I saw a little boy who was a quadriplegic go by in a wheelchair, controlling it with his tongue. I cried for two hours. Then I decided I wanted to live. I said, ‘Don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t quit,’ and that’s how I approach each day.”
Twenty-six months later, Smith used a wheelchair for the last time. Now he gets around with crutches. Re-learning to ride a bike was another challenge.
“I have balance problems because of nerve damage,” Smith said. “When I started training for the ride it was terrifying because I fell a lot.”
Smith met with three NHL teams and at various high school and community ice rinks during his ride south to promote his namesake foundation (website: justcureparalysis.org) and the “Look-up Line,” which has been installed at 100 rinks in 17 states and Canada. Smith came up with the idea when he was watching a Red Sox game and saw an outfielder running toward a fly ball protect himself as his foot hit the Green Monster warning track.
“It takes less than three hours to put down some paint, and we can prevent the kind of catastrophic injury that Travis Roy suffered,” Smith said of Roy, who was paralyzed in his first shift as a Boston University player in 1995.
Smith rode all 38 days with friend Teague Egan, whose 1st Round apparel company was chief sponsor. Another friend and a filmmaker drove the RV the team slept in at truck stops and parking lots. Smith’s arrival at the Miami Project was an emotional one when he hugged his mother and his father, Ken.
“I used to hear my mom crying every night when she went to bed down the hall from my room,” Smith said. “When you’re paralyzed it’s like you’re stuck on a shelf. Just sit here and wait. Why was I able to get out while Marc has been in a chair for 30 years?”
During his Miami visit, Smith got to know Buoniconti, who was injured while playing in a football game for the Citadel in 1985. They watched the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight at Buoniconti’s condo.
“Tom is one of our success stories because he’s shown what can happen with a combination of strong will and the benefits of research and therapy,” Buoniconti said. “He shows what courage can do no matter what cards you may be dealt.”
Green embraced his former patient when the trek ended. He was glad to see Smith covered in a film of sweat. For Green, Smith’s recovery, along with the upcoming first human clinical trials of Schwann cell transplants, are mileposts along the way to the finish line.
“Most people who walk away from an accident don’t look back, but Tom is committed to our goal,” Green said. “We’re on a crescendo of progress. All the doubters who rolled their eyes when I talked about curing paralysis are now saying, ‘Hmmmm.’”