Your Excuse or Your Story

Thirteen months ago, incoming Carolina freshman Colin Thompson was on his way home to Houston from summer camp when he was involved in a life-threatening accident and air-lifted to an Austin hospital. Today, he's an outpatient at the UNC Center for Rehabilitation Care, and he's preparing to begin his college career.

Your Excuse or Your Story click to enlarge Colin at the Old Well days before he starts his freshman year at UNC. Photo by Max Englund/UNC Health Care.
Your Excuse or Your Story click to enlarge Colin about a month after his accident. He had lost 25 lbs. and was too weak to lift his head.

by Zach Read - zachary.read@unchealth.unc.edu

It's early August. Twenty-year-old Colin Thompson sits at a table in front of Merritt’s Store & Grill on South Columbia Street in Chapel Hill. He’s just returned from Laity Lodge Youth Camp (LLYC), near San Antonio, Texas, where he’s been a counselor for three summers running.

A Houston native, Colin has lived in Chapel Hill since October 2014. He's happy to return to North Carolina, despite leaving the bonds he’s formed at LLYC.

“Chapel Hill is so much smaller than Houston,” he says. “It’s a nice change of pace. All the trees are so pretty, and this will sound strange, but it just smells good here.”

Colin begins his freshman year at UNC next week. He was supposed to start his college career at Carolina exactly one year ago. A month prior, however, on July 6, 2014, on his way home to Houston from LLYC, a car accident nearly took his life.

Unconscious, he was airlifted from the scene of the accident to University Medical Center Brackenridge in Austin, where he spent sixteen days in a coma, followed by a month in the intensive care unit and two months of inpatient rehabilitation at The Institute of Rehabilitation and Research (TIRR) in Houston.

His long-term prognosis was uncertain. He’d suffered a severe traumatic brain injury and brain stem hemorrhage. The doctors told his parents that any improvements he was going to make in the days and weeks after the accident would be gradual.

“People don’t generally have good outcomes with this injury,” says his mom, Betsi. “I remember telling him that the doctors hadn’t been sure how well he’d do. He replied, ‘They couldn’t have known how I’d do because they didn’t know me, Mom.’ That’s the type of person Colin is. He’s wired to be positive and keep trying no matter what.”

A Herculean Effort

After completing inpatient rehabilitation in Texas, Colin and Betsi moved to Chapel Hill to join his dad, Patrick, a pediatric hematologist-oncologist who had transitioned from Baylor to UNC in the spring. Upon arrival, Colin began outpatient care at the UNC Center for Rehabilitation CareHis care team at UNC, including Dr. William Filer, assistant professor of physical medicine, and physical therapist Jennifer Newman, among many others, consider Colin the ideal patient.

“He’s one of the most motivated, compliant patients I have ever met,” says Newman. “He’s had a great attitude and works incredibly hard. In addition to the work he does at the center, he goes to the gym on his own every day. There are times when he’s been appropriately frustrated, but he’s made tremendous gains.”

Colin immediately knew he was in good hands the first time he met Newman.

Colin - Greater Houston Scholar Athlete of Year
Colin Thompson was the 2014 Greater Houston Scholar Athlete of the Year in Track and Field.

“She set the tone for how my rehabilitation was going to go,” he remembers. “She didn’t know me and didn’t care what my prognosis had been before arriving. She just told me that our goal is to get me as close to where I was before the accident. I really liked that.”

Returning to pre-accident Colin would be difficult from a physical standpoint – in part because of all he’d accomplished athletically before his injuries. At Strake Jesuit College Preparatory in Houston, Colin, the 2014 Greater Houston Scholar Athlete of the Year in Track and Field, won eight varsity letters – four in track and four in cross country – was named All-District in track twice and cross country once, and was the District 19-5A runner-up in the 800 meter. Track and field isn’t the only sport in which Colin has succeeded. He also excelled at soccer, participating in the Houston Dynamo Youth Academy.

Before the accident, he’d entertained thoughts of trying to walk on the track team at Carolina. Today, Colin is starting to walk again, and his long-term goal is to run a marathon, a feat he could have prepared for with relative ease in high school given his 10- to 12-mile routine runs. Dr. Filer doesn’t put anything past him.

“When I first saw him, given the seriousness of the injuries, I wasn’t sure if he was going to walk or go to college,” says Dr. Filer. “Now we’re doing both those things with almost total confidence. It’s a pretty dramatic shift in our outlook at this point. . . .Most of my patients ask me what I think they’ll be able to do in a few months or a year. Colin told me what he wanted to do and then he made it happen. He’s really put in a Herculean effort in terms of taking charge of his own rehab.”

For Colin’s parents, the quality of care at UNC has made all the difference. Even those at the center’s front desk have lifted his spirits by welcoming him as he enters the building for his sessions. Betsi stresses how positive the providers are and emphasizes that Colin and his team are on the same page; Patrick, who cares for pediatric patients with life-threatening illnesses, has been moved by how personal the care is.

“As a parent, you want health care providers to really care about your child – to love your child,” he says. “That’s how we feel about his care. We get the sense that his team loves him – that they really care about him and want him to do well. As a physician, there are other areas within the continuum of care that you don’t necessarily have time to focus on, but when you see physical therapists and occupational therapists work with a loved one, you think, ‘Wow – what these people do is amazing.’ They really do healing.”

A Community Effort

Last year, when Patrick alerted the admissions office that Colin wouldn’t be able to begin college in the fall, Barbara Polk, deputy director of admissions, immediately responded, not only helping the Thompsons with Colin’s deferment, but also making small gestures like interacting with the family’s CaringBridge page.

“That’s not something you would expect at a big state university,” says Betsi. “We were so grateful to have the support of the university, and also so touched that they would keep up with Colin and take the time to wish us well.”

News about Colin even reached the athletics community. Head football coach Larry Fedora sent Colin a signed program and well wishes during his recovery and men’s basketball coach Roy Williams sent a personal note.

“The Carolina athletics community has been so good to us,” says Patrick. “Sports has always been important to us, and when Colin was well enough to make it to some football and basketball games last year, the ticket office, for instance, helped us trade in our seats for accessible seating. We even had regular visits during baseball games from John Brunner, who works with event management. We’re grateful to everyone in the Carolina athletics family that has looked out for us during this time.”  

Among those they feel most indebted to is Marisa Dobbins, a recently graduated track and field athlete at UNC who had begun her second year of nursing school when she received a call from a family friend back in Houston. The friend’s daughter had been a counselor at LLYC during the summer of Colin's accident. Years earlier, Marisa, too, had served as a counselor at the camp.

Colin at camp
Colin (middle) with some of his fellow LLYC counselors this summer. Fellow Tar Heels Nikki Defeitas (third from right) and Courtney Beals (far right) also serve as counselors at LLYC.

“She asked if I’d be willing to reach out to Colin, who was a friend of her daughter’s from youth camp, when he moved to Chapel Hill in October,” says Marisa. “She explained the situation and that he’d planned on starting that fall at UNC. My answer was ‘of course.’”

Marisa called Colin when he arrived in Chapel Hill and invited him to join her at UNC Athletes in Action, a faith-based student-athlete group that meets at the Loudermilk Center for Excellence in the east end zone of Kenan Memorial Stadium on Wednesday nights. Colin met Marisa and attended. He immediately felt at home among the group and didn’t miss a Wednesday for the remainder of the school year.

“Marisa has been so nice,” Colin says. “This was a great break from going to therapy so often throughout the past year. She’s been encouraging every time I see her, and that’s been huge for me. You can never have enough encouragement when you’re going through something like this.”

Despite his successes, remaining positive hasn’t always been easy. He’s had to attend physical, occupational, and speech therapy nine times a week, and he’s had to relearn how to walk and use the left side of his body. His jaw, which was broken during the accident, was wired shut for two months, which meant he had a tracheotomy and feeding tube placed because he couldn’t eat. He had to relearn how to talk and eat.

Colin and his team
Colin (third from right) with his Strake Jesuit teammates after they finished second in the Texas 5A Cross Country Championships in 2011. He also ran on the third-placed team in Texas 5A in 2013.

“He’s one of the most humble people I’ve ever met,” says Marisa. “He’s a remarkable athlete and a brilliant person and yet, despite not being who he’s used to being physically, he doesn’t let people know all that he’s accomplished. How many people, if faced with the challenges he’s gone through, would approach life that way?”

Tar Heel outfielder Adam Pate has gotten to know Colin through Athletes in Action. He marvels at one moment that occurred in late winter this year. Marisa had been meeting Colin downstairs each Wednesday and wheeling him up for the Athletics in Action gatherings. On this occasion she was caught in conversation when Colin arrived. Within minutes, Colin emerged from the elevator, walking behind his wheelchair.

“We hadn’t seen him walk until that moment,” Adam says. “He had this look on his face as if to say, ‘I got this. I want to show you how far I’ve come.’ We were all so excited.”

‘Your Excuse or Your Story’

Colin tells the story of Isaiah Austin, a Baylor college basketball standout whose dream of playing in the NBA ended because of a rare genetic heart disorder called Marfan Syndrome. As a young boy, Austin had already overcome a serious eye injury that had left him blind in one eye, yet he’d continued to play.

“After losing his sight in one eye, his mom told him, ‘You can make it your excuse or you can make it your story,’ and he went on to put himself in a position to be a lottery pick in the NBA,” says Colin. “I take that to heart.”

Adam Pate is one of many in the Carolina community who have already taken to heart the strength Colin has demonstrated in the short time they've known him.

“He’s been an inspiration,” Adam says. “This has changed the course of his life in many ways, but he’s been able to make his way back to his initial plan of attending Carolina and attaining that degree. It shows what kind of person he is and the kind of perseverance and heart he’s had through all this.”

Colin and Emma
Colin and his sister, Emma, who is working on her Master's in social work at UNC, at a Tar Heel baseball game this spring.

Colin credits his parents for guiding him through the difficult moments of the past year. His mom has been at home with him through much of his rehab.

"She's positive no matter what," says Colin.

His dad, meanwhile, sets an example by how he responds to the unique challenges of his work.

“I’ve seen what he goes through every day, in a tough job, seeing innocent children plagued with a terrible sickness like cancer, and I’ve admired his ability to remain positive and keep going about his life,” says Colin.

As Colin reflects on his experiences, other encouragement he has received sticks out: the constant reminders that the year would go by faster than he thinks, and to remain positive.

“This year has taught me that if you believe you can do something, you can probably do it," he says. "When I was paralyzed on my left side and couldn’t talk or eat, I never thought I could be the person I am today. I’ve really learned the power of being positive. This experience has changed my mindset.”

After being away from peers in the social and educational settings school provides, he’s excited about what lies ahead. It’s a little early, he admits, but he’d like to major in exercise science and kinesiology and to eventually become a physical therapist.

His older sister, Emma, who graduated from the University of Texas, is getting her Master’s in social work at UNC this year. Colin relates the encouragement he received -- to keep in mind that the year would go by quickly -- to what Emma has told him about being in college.

“She reminds me that her time at UT was amazing, but that it went by way too fast,” he says. “Now that I think about it, I believe that seeing how fast this past year went by helps me. Yes, my goal is to attend college and graduate, but I also want to enjoy every day, week, and semester of it while I’m there. I want to keep in mind that it's going to go quickly and I want to be positive and happy throughout it.”

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