BOSTON (CBS) — While many will try to run the Boston Marathon as fast as they can next month, Thomas Smith will be walking the 26.2 mile route.
This will be the second time Smith makes the famous trek from Hopkinton to Boston, but it will be much, much different from the first. This time around, he is a walking miracle — literally — after suffering three separate injuries that could have left him permanently paralyzed.
“I knew it was going to be a long fight, and in a sense, a marathon and not a sprint,” the Swampscott native told WBZ-TV. “There is a sense of satisfaction when someone says you’re not ever going to walk again and then you get up and move.”
Time has provided perspective for Smith. He ran Boston 10 years ago and did so with little training, relying on his natural athleticism and strong young body. He was a promising young hockey player, looking ahead to playing in college and potentially beyond.
“[Hockey] was me. It was my identity,” said Smith. “It was what I was good at and a gateway for me to do better in all facets of my life. I used that growing up.”
But it was seemingly gone in a heartbeat when Smith was 19. A collision on the ice sent him into the air and headfirst into the boards. It caused serious injuries to his neck and brain, and Smith didn’t come to until the next day in the hospital.
“My mom is beside me and she had her hand on my hand, but I can’t squeeze it. That’s when I really lost it and knew something was significantly wrong,” Smith recalled. “The doctor came in and was explaining paralysis, which I knew of but didn’t fully understand.”
The neck injury left Smith paralyzed and doctors told him to prepare for life in a wheelchair. But he couldn’t — and wouldn’t — accept that. After nine months of intensive rehab for both his body and his brain, doctors gave Smith the news he was hoping for.
“They said I was no more susceptible than the average person to get hurt again; [that I was] a walking miracle. It was a one in a million recovery,” he said. “They said if you want to go back to hockey, you can.”
Smith was back on the ice less than a year after being paralyzed. He felt that he was in the best shape of his life and back on track to playing hockey for a living. He had joined a new team and was doing well in practices heading into training camp. But disaster struck again just four months after his return when he got tangled up with a teammate during a drill.
“I was taking a hard lap around the rink and I got entangled. My teammate went into the boards feet first and I went into the boards head first. As soon as I hit the boards, I knew I was paralyzed,” said Smith.
This was a completely different and unrelated injury to his spinal cord. This time it was between Smith’s shoulder blades, but the results were the same.
“[Doctors] said I had a better chance at winning the lottery five times in a row than having two separate accidents that were totally unrelated,” he said.
This second round of rehab was more difficult. Smith’s body did not respond the way it had after the first injury. But thanks to an aggressive program, he was standing with a walker within a few months. Things were looking up for Smith once again.
But then the unthinkable happened. As he and his father were stopped at a red light, they were rear-ended. Smith suffered another back injury, erasing all of his progress. He was starting over for a third time.
“After that, I knew there was a greater purpose for me — more than just hockey and the game,” said Smith. “But I didn’t know how I was going to get there. … How can I use this to make an impact and help change the world?”
Smith battled bouts of depression and struggled with drugs and alcohol. But he realized he could be a voice for others in his situation and launched the Thomas E. Smith Foundation. He joined forces with Journey Forward, a non-profit in Canton that helps those living with spinal cord injuries. Smith credits the Canton rehab facility with his own progress.
“Journey Forward is the most aggressive, cutting edge rehab program. It gets people back on their feet. I’m a product of the exorcises and equipment they have here,” he said. “It’s more than just a rehab center. I see it as a place that is saving lives.”
Smith is now walking again with the help of two crutches, and will be back at the start line in Hopkinton for his second Boston Marathon as a part of the Journey Forward team. He’s older and wiser, and this time, he has a purpose to make that 26.2 mile trek. He’s walking (and raising money) for those who can’t.
“I was never supposed to be able to do this journey, and here I am,” said Smith. “On April 16, I’m going to be the first person with these types of injuries to attempt to walk the Boston Marathon. I’m confident that I’ll be the first to finish.
“Everyone else that doesn’t have the opportunity to do this, that’s what’s going to get me across the finish line,” he said.