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The long road back

”On May 17, 2012, my cousin, Tom Morris suffered a spinal cord injury as a result of a mountain biking accident. This page is to offer support to Tom and Christa, share information, as well as help meet his upcoming needs. Spinal cord rehabilitation is an extensive and costly venture. I am hopeful that together we can raise the funds to provide Tom with the resources to allow him a speedy return to his productive and meaningful life.” –May 17 entry on Tom’s Team Facebook page

Tom Morris (right) was paralyzed by a mountain biking accident in mid-May. Since that time, his friends, family and colleagues have rallied around him and his wife, Christa, raising money to help support them through his rehabilitation process.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Tom Morris remembers every moment of the mountain bike crash that, in a single moment, would rob him of his mobility, of the feeling in his legs, of the use of any muscle below his nipples.

He remembers coming around a curve on his fourth lap of the Wapahani Mountain Bike Park, a popular network of trails at least nine miles altogether, tucked into the southwest corner of Bloomington. He remembers going airborne, somersaulting forward. He remembers hitting the ground head first, and feeling a sensation he likens to suffering a neck stinger in football practice. And he remembers lying for three hours on the ground, unable to move beyond limited use of his arms, which weren’t capable enough to reach into his pocket for his cell phone, to call his wife, Christa, or his work, or anyone who might be able to help him.

The one thing Tom Morris does not remember — something it’s entirely possible he never saw — is what caused his crash in the first place.

“I can’t picture what I possibly hit in the middle of that trail,” he says, speaking earnestly, “because to me, I still don’t see a single thing there.”

He speaks about this experience without reservation or pause. He exudes optimism. It spills out with every breath. Tom Morris does not know if he will ever walk again, let alone ride a bike again. He believes he will, and right now, that’s enough.

No one who knows Tom Morris acts surprised by his attitude, by his buoyancy or his drive. This, they say, is quite simply who he is.

It is what makes him such a good strength and conditioning coach, working with the women’s basketball and men’s soccer teams at Indiana.

It is why those around him believe fully in a man who has pushed his body to the farthest limits of competition but now faces his greatest ever challenge.

A strength and conditioning coach with Indiana for several years, Morris currently works with the women's basketball and men's soccer programs.

It is why hundreds of people have rushed to his aid through fundraisers of various kinds, why the walls of his two-bedroom here at the Frazier Rehab Institute are lined, window-to-window, with greeting cards, why his friends and colleagues say if there is someone who can recover from an injury this severe, it’s Tom.

”I'm in the room with Tom, he wanted to post a message: I want to send out a huge thank you to all of my friends and family for your prayers and support. I love you all and promise I'll work as hard as I can to get back on my feet....LOVE TOM” –IU strength and conditioning coach Chris Virtue, May 19

There is something remarkable in Tom Morris. It bleeds out of his infectious personality, the one that makes him the “life of the party” in a room full of people assembled for the purpose of helping him cope with a broken neck. It makes him “Superman” in the eyes of a young woman who he coached and coaxed and carried through a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and the months of doubt and fear that accompany a teenager through the most unknown experience of her life.

It builds a goal — not to walk again, but to ride again. Medically, more people who suffer spinal injuries don’t walk again than do. More of those who do walk again experience complications and live with impurities in their gait their entire lives. Tom Morris is aiming higher than that. He doesn’t want to walk again. He wants to ride his bike again.

So, yes, there is something extraordinary in Tom Morris, in the way he has approached a scenario only experienced by most in nightmares.

He crashed his bike. He broke his neck. He cannot walk. There is absolutely no medical procedure or test on the planet that can tell him whether he will ever regain the use of any of the muscles he currently has little to no control over. But more than simply capitulating to that reality, Morris refuses to be changed by it. That, I am told by his friends and coworkers, is why Morris will beat any of the odds in front of him — because for the rare 100th person in the crowd, the force of will is stronger than anything else.

There is no easy road back from a spinal cord injury, because there is no road. Every patient rehabilitating from spinal shock is cutting his own path through a personal jungle, hoping that all the slashes and hacks and jumps eventually land him on a beach.

When Tom Morris went head first into the ground at Wapahani on May 17, he dislocated his C6 and C7 vertebrae against one another, pinching his spinal cord to the point that he lost all feeling below his chest.

Morris helped oversee the rehabilitation of Sasha Chaplin (left) after she tore her ACL during her freshman season. Now a redshirt senior, Chaplin appeared in all 30 of Indiana's games last year.

He lied on the ground for three hours as blood, as toxic to the nerves in the spinal cord as motor oil is to an aquarium, rushed into his wound. Slowly, the nerves running between his cord and the rest of his body began to shut down and die. Once found, he was rushed to Bloomington Hospital, then helicoptered to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, where his vertebrae were fused and reinforced with a titanium plate.

At that point, there was absolutely no definite way of knowing how much damage had already been done by an injury during which time truly is everything, of knowing how many nerves died that mid-May afternoon, and how many are simply dormant, waiting to be reawakened.

But if the remarkable in Tom Morris’ story even begins on May 17 (which it probably does not), then it begins with this: He never panicked, and he has the electronic evidence to prove it, in the form of the heart rate monitor he was wearing at the time of the accident.

“It’s a really weird sensation — I never got that razzled,” Morris says. “It’s a crazy thing for me to even think about, because I would think I’d be in a panic and just thinking about the craziest stuff, but I just kind of laid there and relaxed. It was just really weird.”

When someone finally happened by and asked if he was alright, he responded simply: “No.”

“He never panicked. He never got excited,” says Ken Gros Louis, Indiana’s chancellor emeritus and one of Morris’ usual workout partners. “He said, ‘You know, there were ants crawling all over me, but hell, I didn’t even know they were there, because I couldn’t feel anything.’”

TOGETHER we can FLY......
The support has been greater than I could have ever imagined. 98 donations now total $ 9705. Unbelievable....THANKS! –May 30

Speak to those who knows Tom Morris, even in an ancillary way, and they are almost sure to gush to you about his personality and his outlook on life.

Morris, according to his friends, colleagues and players, is defined by his optimism and enthusiasm, traits he has not lost in his rehab.

Gros Louis calls him “an incredibly caring, compassionate, enthusiastic person.” Jeremy Gray, the radio voice of the IU women’s basketball team and Morris’ roommate on road trips, says rooming with him is like “rooming with a very excited 7-year-old the night before Christmas.”

Sasha Chaplin was eight games into her college career when she tore an anterior cruciate ligament against Butler in December 2008. A 6-foot-3 forward from St. Petersburg, Fla., she was far from home, sidelined indefinitely and scared.

She worked closely with Morris in the following months, forced to the sideline and discouraged, at times, by the length and difficulty of her rehabilitation. Morris would work one-on-one with her while her teammates practiced. On the road, after pregame shootaround, he would take Chaplin to the hotel weight room and put her through an upper-body workout. He never let her quit on herself.

“There would be days where I felt like I couldn’t do anymore,” Chaplin says, “and he was always there next to me, just saying that, ‘You know, this is what you’re working hard for — you’re working hard for next season. Yea, it’s unfortunate what happened to you, but you’re coming back stronger and quicker than ever, better than ever, and that’s what I’m here for, to push you.’”

So many people have similar stories, of Morris’ uplifting spirit.

“He inspires confidence. He inspires affection,” Gros Louis says.

None of that was lost to his injury.

On the day we meet, I walk into Morris’ two-bed room at Frazier in downtown Louisville to find him meeting with two friends. He introduces me, though we’ve never actually met in person, and promptly takes the three of us on a trip down the hall to see the machine therapists are hopeful will help Morris walk again, a treadmill built specially for spinal cord patients.

Morris, seen here working with the women's basketball team, is currently at Frazier Rehab Center in Louisville, a facility he will return to once he transitions into outpatient therapy as well.

Later, when we sit down to talk, he leans forward in his wheelchair, eyes sharp and attentive. There are no questions he shirks, no answers he guards. He speaks quickly, but only because he is happy to speak about his accident, and all that has come after (he’s even perfectly willing to explain how he uses the bathroom these days).

Gros Louis visited Morris on the Monday after the initial injury. He drove to Indianapolis with Jeff Wuslich, his former chief of staff and another veteran of weight room sessions with Morris. Upon arrival, they discovered a room filled with people — family and friends, all assembled to check on Tom. The mood was hardly somber.

“It was like a party, and Tom was the life of the party,” Gros Louis says, laughing. “Here he is, four days after the surgery, not knowing what the future’s going to hold, and still not being able to put his thumb against the other four fingers. … Tom, he really was the life of the party, telling anecdotes, talking about the accident.”

Morris’ work gets the same approach. Being a strength and conditioning coach at the college level requires a certain amount of flexibility. It’s the job of the strength coach not just to prepare athletes for competition, but to prepare them specifically, and to harden them against the kinds of injuries that often plague their sport.

So Morris asks questions. He studies. He listens. He builds.

“Since day one, he’s been extremely open and wanting to learn the nuances of our sport,” IU men’s soccer coach Todd Yeagley says. “He’s able to apply the proper techniques and workouts that make a soccer player more effective.”

Midfielder Harrison Petts first met Morris on a visit to IU, when Petts was a senior at Zionsville High School, just north of Indianapolis. The two struck up a quick relationship.

“Once I got to school, the summer before my freshman year, I immediately started looking up to Tom as a person, as well as a coach,” Petts says, adding of Morris’ personality: “It’s really inspirational, and I feel like anybody that’s ever met Tom will tell you the same thing.

Seen here competing in an adventure race — a multi-discipline race usually held along an orienteering course — Morris is an active cyclist and triathlete as well. He says his goal is to ride his bike again.

"I don’t think there’s anyone that’s ever been around Tom that isn’t better for it.”

Now a junior, Petts says a few months ago, as he began considering life after soccer, Morris encouraged him to start competing in triathlons.

To help with fundraising efforts to help pay for Morris’ medical costs and other future expenses, like making his home more wheelchair-friendly, Petts raised money ahead of the Hoosierman sprint triathlon, an event held at Lake Monroe, south of Bloomington. Over a 500-meter swim, a 10-mile bike ride and a five-kilometer run, Petts finished first in his age group. He eventually donated more than $2,500.

Morris has also, for the last two years, worked with the Sigma Chi Little 500 Team as a conditioning coach and training adviser.

“The guy’s smart, and he loves what he does and he’s good at what he does,” says Drew Morrow, a senior on the team last season. “It wasn’t work for him. He loves to cycle, and he’s an adult, but he’s a kid. He loved hanging with us.”

Whatever the sport or the workout, whomever he worked with at the time, Morris’ personality always bled through. It’s part of what made him good at his job. It’s part of what makes him more prepared for the indefinite rehabilitation process he faces now.

“He’d say, ‘Well, let’s do 10 reps of this,’ and then he’d say, ‘Give me one more,’” Gros Louis says. “You’d do one more and he’d say, ‘Yeaaa, give me one more.’

“But he’d do it in a way that you’d want to give him one more.”

Morris will likely transition into outpatient therapy soon, during which time he will live somewhere in Louisville and continue working through "locomotor" training in Louisville.

"Great day today at Frazier! WBB came to visit with Tom and cheered him on during therapy. Therapy was amazing!!! Good things, great things are about to happen;)” –June 16

In the hours after Morris was finally discovered, everything moved quickly.

He was taken to Bloomington Hospital via ambulance, a trip expedited by simple luck — he had crashed near a cutout in the road, and there was a police officer right near the cutout when he was found. The cutout also made getting the ambulance and paramedics to him easier.

At Bloomington Hospital, a CAT scan revealed the dislocation in his spinal column, and he was taken by helicopter to Methodist. Upon arrival, Morris received further tests and eventually underwent the spinal surgery that fused his vertebrae together and relieved the pressure on his cord. He did not come out of that procedure until around 2 a.m. Friday.

After a brief stay at Methodist, he transferred to the Rehabilitation Hospital of Indianapolis, to begin the process of reigniting dormant nerves and regaining all he could from the injury. At RHI, Morris began to learn basic skills for rehabilitation, and for life without the use of his legs in particular. His began to regain more use of his arms and hands.

Visitors passed in and out of the rehab facility, nestled between I-465 and the Eagle Creek Reservoir.

“It’s almost like a cheesy joke: It’s a grandma, a priest, two student-athletes, a co-worker, a buddy of his from college and his brother from Virginia,” Gray says, laughing again. “Every time you go there, it’s this wide cross-section of people, and I think it’s because he’s never met a stranger.”

On one particular visit, Gray took his daughter, Zoe, with him.

In addition to his duties with IU, Morris also works on the side as a strength coach. His charges include the Sigma Chi Little 500 Team, a group he has worked with for the last two years.

Gray and Morris have roomed together for four years on women’s basketball road trips, in that time becoming very close. Their wives went Black Friday shopping together once in California. On a recent trip to Cancun for a tournament near Christmas, Morris helped keep Zoe entertained.

Zoe is still just 5 years old, and Gray was concerned about how she might react to seeing Morris in a hospital bed, or in a wheelchair.

“By the end, as we’re talking to Christa, we see Tom chasing my daughter down the hall in his wheelchair,” Gray says, “and I’m like, ‘He’s still Tom, they’re relationship is still the same,' and I think that’s what makes him an unusual guy.’”

”Tom is ready today to destroy therapy. It has been an amazing morning I feel great things are going to happen;)” –June 30

Morris will need that “zest for life,” as Yeagley puts it, because there’s no way of knowing if he’s ever going to walk again.

According to Steve Williams, the chief of spinal cord medicine at Frazier, Morris has what’s called an “incomplete” injury.

Medically speaking, Morris’ point of injury is fine. The only physical remembrances he carries are the two-inch incision scar just left of his Adam’s apple, and the Velcro-strap brace that stabilizes his neck from his chin to his sternum.

All progress now is measured from the neck down. Morris has his arms back, and the use of and power in his hands is redeveloping as well. When we talk in early July, he says his core is returning too, at one point stopping mid-sentence to point out that a seemingly random jerk of his body in his wheelchair is one of his abdominal muscles firing again.

The importance of the core makes it a crucial target during recovery. Even if Morris’ legs were to begin functioning again, without his core, he would be unable to stabilize himself or control his body. Without his core, he still would not be able to walk effectively.

“Core strength is really important, because if you think about it, your legs move you, but if you can’t stand and control yourself, you’ll fall,” Williams says.

All of this is a product of rehabilitation that qualifies as somewhat revolutionary in the area of spinal cord therapy.

Partnering with the University of Louisville, Frazier has become one of the country’s foremost centers of spinal cord injury and rehabilitation. Dr. Susan Harkema, the center’s rehabilitation research director and a leading expert in her field, pioneered a field of therapy known as “locomotor” rehabilitation.

Morris wakes up each morning at Frazier at about 6 a.m. He spends about an hour getting dressed and ready for the day, completing tasks he used to finish in a fraction of the time. He eats breakfast and begins therapy with the specialized treadmill down the hall from his room, a device that is a large part of his rehab, and a large part of the reason he wanted to get into Frazier in the first place.

During therapy, Morris is held above the treadmill by a harness that’s suspended from the ceiling. Using hydraulics, Center staff can control the amount of his body weight that Morris must bear at any point in time. One therapist stands behind him, and one is stationed at each leg. Together, all three help move Morris’ legs, trying to help them rediscover old skills.

“What we’re trying to do is we’re actually trying to jump-start the nervous system,” Williams says. “We don’t quite understand why activity-based therapies cause this to happen, but they actually increase neuroplasticity, and that’s the ability of the nervous system to reawaken and take on tasks.”

His lung capacity, built by all his endurance training, helps immensely, because his diaphragm isn’t working correctly. And though he still needs medication to help regulate it, his fitness level also means his blood pressure is more stable.

Perhaps most importantly — and most simply — being in good physical shape helps prepare the body for the rehabilitation process. Without his legs, Morris makes much greater use of his arms and shoulders. His rehabilitation routines are so strenuous that most days, he’s ready for sleep before 9 p.m. According to Williams, even the slightest advantages in strength can pay massive dividends during long-term recovery.

“Being in good physical shape definitely impacts outcome,” Williams says.

Frazier helps too.

On the day he left RHI, Morris was tasked with doing as many push-ups as he could muster.

The record was one. He did four.

At Frazier, Morris has found a team of people willing to push him ever further, no matter the gains he made.

“I got here the first day, and they had me do something similar to that,” he says. “I did eight, and she looked at me says, ‘Why didn’t you do nine?’”

On July 2, the same day Tom and I meet for the first time, his quads fire during a rehab session.

”The treadmill has been amazing as it helps my posture to improve daily. On Monday during a session we performed quarter squats. For the first time my quads fired to actively stand me up.

This is my progress thus far and I will continue to update as I progress through therapy.

Thanks again to all of you for your kindness and support.

Tom” –July 5

“When the character of a man is not clear to you, look at his friends,” reads a Japanese proverb. In the days and weeks since Morris’ injury, Gray’s words about him “never knowing a stranger” have become manifest. The Bloomington community has rallied around Tom and his wife, in ways both tangible and otherwise.

Six days after the accident, a page sprang up, asking for donations to help pay for the coming costs associated with Morris’ rehabilitation and return home. Insurance will only cover expenses up to a certain point medically, and there’s also the matter of making Morris’ home more wheelchair-accessible.

Across the top of the GoFundMe page, in white type set against an orange background, read the words “Tom’s Team — winning this race together.” They have become an unofficial standard, both of specific fundraising efforts, and also more simply of the vast network of support that has built around Tom and Christa.

The GoFundMe page set out with a goal of raising $20,000. To date, more than 230 donations have been posted, a total nearing $24,000.

Bob Costello, the owner of the Village Deli and a friend and fellow triathlete, wanted to raise money for his racing partner, so for one day, he threw open his restaurant doors on the promise that all proceeds from the day would go to Morris. Waiters and waitresses worked for minimum wage, donating all tips as well.

Joni Hulls, the mother of senior point guard Jordan Hulls and redshirt freshman guard/forward Kaila Hulls, who transferred back to IU after her freshman season at Bowling Green, made “Tom’s Team” T-shirts. Stephanie Siler, a member of the women’s basketball coaching staff for several years, helped sell Tom’s Team rubber bracelets, similar to those made popular by Lance Armstrong’s LIVESTRONG Foundation.

Yeagley says he’s hopeful people can maintain their zeal for assistance in much the same way Morris has attacked his rehabilitation.

“Sometimes you don’t know how much people think of you until you’re having a tough time,” Yeagley says. “People get excited to help. …

“It’s refreshing, because the world we live in, the culture, things like that don’t get talked about too much.”

”Hello everyone!
This past week my strength and stain a are getting stronger. I am Finally off all of my blood pressure and pain medicines. I never took pain meds so they decided to remove them completely from my chart.

In therapy while standing I surpassed my record of 10 minutes and stood for 13:30 with assistance blocking my knees. While standing I was able to take my hands off the bars and stand with them by my side.

The treadmill is helping my quads to fire and be constant. They are showing minimal strength gains. This is my favorite part of the day. It gives my the freedom to walk again.

We are putting a lot of focus on improving my hand (d)exterity and strength. I have a lot of different exercises and tools to help active the areas and muscles needed. We also use stem that activate the muscles that are not firing at the moment in my hands.

The tentative release date for now in the 21st!

I want to thank all of my visitors, supports, and everyone on the page for everything you are doing, or have done for us. Christa and I are forever thankful to all of you;)

Till next time! Enjoy your day!
Tom” –July 15

The reality of Tom Morris’ story is that it has no clear ending. Williams says he doesn’t deal in odds, because he has no way of knowing for sure what they are, from patient to patient. When Morris’ injury was first diagnosed, it was feared he might be a quadriplegic for the rest of his life. Now he has his upper body back, and his lower body and core are showing some promising signs.

Through everything that has happened in the last two months, Morris’ confidence and spirit have never wavered. But there is, in Morris, recognition that none of what he’s done in his life compares to this.

“This is a different thing,” he tells me, “because really, it’s physically demanding, but there’s a whole emotional thing that goes into this, because the reality is this: Some of my rehab is learning how to put pants on. It’s hard as hell. It’s really tough to put a pair of pants on, or shoes and stuff. That’s tough, but then when it comes down to it, when I start thinking about it, that’s life right there.

“Before, where I rode a bike really hard, I cycled up a hill, but if I don’t make it up the hill, I can be mad at myself or whatever, but it doesn’t really affect me, as far as how life is. But if I can’t put pants on at the end of the day, that’s a whole different game for me, because the physical part is hard and it’s tough, but then there’s an emotional part that I literally just, I know I’ve gotta do this stuff. This is life, and you have got to be able to transfer yourself from the wheelchair to the bed. You need to make sure that, if you are on the ground, you can get up into that bed, and you can do all that stuff.

“It’s physically demanding, but I think the emotional part of that, you can’t put it in reference to triathlon training or any of that stuff has ever been for me before, because this has been more … the physical parts I’ve dealt with, but I’ve never had to deal with the fact of, this is right now. You need to make sure that you’re getting this stuff done and every day you continue to get better at it, because you’ve got to go home soon, and you’re not going to have the luxuries of what a hospital offers you, and you’ve got to be able to do this stuff to survive, basically.”

Cycling is a difficult sport for many people to understand. It is not a test of skill, of inherent or ingrained instinct. Cycling, at its base, is pure. It is a personal challenge to push oneself harder and farther one day than the day before. Cycling is a sport of persistence, and persistent pain. It taxes all the senses, challenges the mind, the body and the soul.

So now, Tom Morris faces a challenge with which he is not unfamiliar. Like training on the bike, his goals are not intermediate. He takes short steps, like one abdominal muscle firing, to build toward long ones, like riding his bike again.

That is his ultimate goal. Not walking — riding. For Tom Morris, there is no in between. There is only today, and then six months from now, or a year from now, or however long it takes to reclaim as much movement and as much muscle as he possibly can. He must relearn, slowly, all the things he spent most of his life doing without a second thought. This, as he says simply, is life.

Just before I leave, I admit to him that I am something of a novice cyclist, that I rode in the Little 500 for four years, but that I’ve since let my habit slip.

Dinner arrived minutes earlier, and Morris is about to dig in. He looks up from examining his meal, a smile on his face. He encourages me to get back into the sport that has put him in a wheelchair and threatens to keep him there indefinitely. I tell him that I want to, that I need to.

Just before diving into his food, Morris summons once more that seemingly indefatigable hope, and offers me the closest thing to a promise I would imagine someone in his position can.

“We’ll go riding together.”

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