On his way to Myers Park High School early one morning in February, Thomas Crain suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car crash and lapsed into a coma.
And then a wonderful thing happened.
While doctors worked against all medical odds to save Thomas, his classmates, teachers, neighbors, church members, his girlfriend and even strangers from Facebook, reached out to help his family. In ways both spiritual and tangible, from prayers to casseroles, they supported the Crains through a journey of healing that is far from over, but will reach a remarkable milestone June 11.
That afternoon, the kid who wasnt expected to survive will walk across the stage at his high school graduation.
It will be a joyous moment in a year that tested the heart of North Carolinas largest high school. Thomas showed us there are miracles, said senior Taylor Brookhouse, and that we need to be thankful for the lives we are given every day.
Thomas, who is 18, suffered a diffuse axonal injury to his brain after his SUV was hit broadside when he turned left onto Sharon Amity Road from Castleton Road. Nine of 10 people who suffer an injury that severe never regain consciousness.
There were a lot of people who didnt think he would get through the first night, said his mother, Lucy. I dont think I ever thought he wouldnt make it. But there were times I thought he wouldnt wake up and we would have to come to that terrible decision.
His classmates kept a vigil at Carolinas Medical Center. Members of Covenant Presbyterian Church brought dinner for the Crains, and snacks for the students. Neighbors mowed the familys lawn. Strangers dropped off gift cards.
For Lucy and Jim Crain, the outpouring of support was an affirmation of the blessings of being part of a community, a lesson in letting go and letting others do for you. The love and the prayers were almost a tangible presence, Lucy said. From the first day, somebody took over all the details so we could focus on Thomas.
He is the middle of their three children, so easy-going that people used to joke that if Thomas was any more laid back he wouldnt be breathing. His way of greeting family and close friends was to hug them.
The Crains own the Chick-fil-A at SouthPark, where Thomas worked. He also played basketball and soccer, and was fluent in German.
First a step, then a sound
For the longest time at the hospital, there seemed to be no change in his condition. Thomas looked as if he was sleeping, his injuries hidden, including a bruised kidney and spleen and extensive brain damage.
One of the doctors explained what happened to his brain this way, Lucy said. If you had a Tupperware container of green Jello and you threw it against the wall, it would have all these cracks in it. Then if you put it in the refrigerator, some of the cracks will go back together, and some will stay. You dont know which parts of his brain will heal, which will find new pathways, which will stay cracked.
Day after day for two weeks, family and friends waited for a sign. And then it came: Thomass right hand moved. Another day, his fingers snapped. Then his eyelids opened. Ever so slowly, he emerged from the coma.
Therapists lifted him into a sitting position until he could sit on his own. They held him up, bent his knees and moved his legs until he could walk.
Still, Thomas didnt speak. A therapist noticed that he followed written commands better than spoken ones. So on April 6, Good Friday, she tried something new. She held up a card on which she had written: Open your mouth.
Thomas opened his mouth.
She held up a second card: Say Pa.
Thomas pursed his lips. Then he opened them, forcing air up from his lungs. In a whispery, unrecognizable voice, he made a sound:
Card by card, sound by sound, word by word, Thomas spoke for the first time in 44 days.
Mom Dad I love you.
After more than two months in the hospital, Thomas finally went home May 8. He is now strong enough to shoot basketballs and kick a soccer ball. His sense of humor has returned.
Last week, he talked about his recovery. It just hit me one day, he said. Memories peoples faces peoples names. Only one thing hasnt come back: The day of the wreck.
But Thomas is far from healed. He will need years of therapy, most of which is not covered by insurance.
On Saturday, Myers Park High DECA hosted a softball tournament that raised $2,008 to help defer his medical costs. Thomas threw out the first pitch.
Most of the work he needs to do is cognitive anything that involves critical thinking, organizational skills, those pathways are damaged, Lucy said. Hes just starting to have enough awareness to ask, Am I always going to be slow? Am I ever going to drive again? Am I ever going to be able to work?
With brain injuries, theres no way to predict.
Hes got a two-year uphill climb ahead of him, Lucy said. All his friends are going off to college and going on with their lives. Hes going to be learning third-grade math.
The frustration he sometimes feels motivates him to work harder, and thats a good thing. Better to be frustrated than defeated.
I feel pretty good, he said. Considering the way I was feeling. I wouldnt say I was depressed, but I just got to feeling that lifes not fair some times. Now Im doing better.
With the class of 2012
Thomas had to drop all of his classes, but he has enough credits to graduate.
To be able to walk across the stage with this group of kids who have been pulling for him and loving him since February, it is an incredible thing to think about, Lucy said.
Myers Park went through some tough times this year. Several students lost parents to illness. Two days before Thomas was hurt, a recent graduate was killed in a wreck. Just last week, a freshman who lived on the same street as Thomas died when he was hit by a truck while biking to school.
In the midst of all those tragedies, Thomas defied the medical predictions.
The gratitude we have to all the people in the community will hopefully be expressed on graduation day, Lucy said. Theyll all get to see him.
The girl of his dreams
But this is more than a story about what Lucy calls a miracle. Its a love story, too.
When Thomas was in seventh grade at Piedmont Middle School, he fell for pretty Olivia Robertson, the center mid-fielder on the girls soccer team. Olivia moved to Wilmington after eighth grade and, despite the distance, she and Thomas remained sweethearts. She has made the 200-mile trip to Charlotte seven times since he was hurt.
I took her little face in my hands and told her, Youre only 18. You didnt sign on to this, Lucy said. You need to go to the beach for spring break, you need to go to prom and Thomas will catch up with you one day.
Olivia insisted on spending spring break with Thomas, and came back when he was named Prom King. She graduates next Saturday in Wilmington and will be here two days later to watch Thomas graduate.
While he was still in a coma, Thomas was accepted to UNC Chapel Hill; he has a medical deferment. Olivia hoped to go to Chapel Hill, too, or Appalachian State University. But she changed her mind. She wants to be close to Thomas. She can motivate him in ways no one else can.
Some say its a crazy move on my part, and that I shouldnt completely alter my life plans for him, Olivia said. But I know he would do it for me if I was in his situation. I feel like God has put me in his life for this long so that I can be there for him now when he needs me the most.
The girl Thomas says means everything to me will start classes in August at UNC Charlotte.