ORLANDO, Fla. â€” Jordan Thomas was 16 years old and about to go scuba diving off the Florida Keys when a wave knocked him underwater and into the boatâ€™s propeller.
â€œI remember saying, â€˜Dad, my feet are gone,â€™â€ he said.
The accident was freakish, but Thomasâ€™ reaction to it may have been equally unlikely. Still lying in a Miami hospital bed after nearly bleeding to death, the teen began planning for a way to help other amputees â€” children whose families were not as well off as his.
â€œI didnâ€™t think my life was over,â€ said Thomas, now 22 and a junior in international business at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. â€œI knew my life wasnâ€™t over. And that situation just let me see how much better I had it than a lot of kids did, and it made me think about what I could do to help.â€
Both of his parents are neonatologists, graduates of the University of Florida. Their income and connections helped their youngest son get the best medical care and support from a wide circle of family and friends. Twelve days later, by the time he was back home in Chattanooga, Tenn., Thomas and his family already had laid out the structure and mission of what was to become the Jordan Thomas Foundation â€” a private nonprofit organization that would raise money for childrenâ€™s prosthetic limbs.
His mother, Dr. Liz Kennedy Thomas, who had witnessed the accident, believes the effort helped both Jordan and the family to heal.
â€œIt was his idea from the very beginning,â€ she said. â€œIn a lot of ways, I think that perhaps he didnâ€™t process what had happened as much as he might have, and so he moved it into a realm he could deal with. The foundation turned into something very positive out of something that was otherwise devastating. It helped us all bond and grow.â€
The children that Jordan Thomas had encountered in the hospital were not, for the most part, destitute. Their families had health insurance. But as Thomas quickly learned, insurers often refuse to cover prosthetic limbs for children, or they cap coverage, often at $5,000 per year.
â€œItâ€™s just cheaper for them not to cover,â€ he said. â€œOr sometimes theyâ€™ll pay for one prosthetic for a lifetime. I always compare it to giving an 8-year-old kid a pair of shoes and saying, â€˜Here, wear these for the rest of your life.â€™ Itâ€™s not feasible.â€
Children, with their rapidly growing bodies, often need new prosthetic limbs as frequently as once every year or two. Joints such as knees are particularly pricey â€” $100,000 or more apiece. Yet, as Thomas likes to say, arms and legs are not luxuries.
At the national Amputee Coalition, a nonprofit resource center, the issue is one that advocates have been battling for years.
â€œWhen prosthetic devices can cost â€¦ $10,000 or more â€¦ this cap can have catastrophic implications for families,â€ said President and CEO Kendra Calhoun. â€œWe have heard that families have mortgaged their homes to pay for prosthetic devices for their child.â€
Calhoun calls Thomas â€œan inspirationâ€ in more ways than one. Not only has he been able to help pay for dozens of prostheses for children in the U.S. and Haiti, but he also is a role model for the tens of thousands of children across the country living with varying degrees of limb loss.
In 2009, Thomas was named one of CNNâ€™s Top 10 Heroes. He also won the national Outstanding Youth in Philanthropy Award and was given that yearâ€™s Courage Award â€” an honor from the nonprofit Courage Center that previously had gone to physicist Stephen Hawking, Itzhak Perlman, Christopher Reeve, Janet Reno and Bob Dole.
His foundation has sold wristbands and T-shirts and held an annual golf tournament â€” Thomas is an avid and talented golfer â€” and has collectively raised nearly $1 million. For U.S. beneficiaries, the foundation commits to buying them as many prosthetic limbs as they need until they reach age 18.