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Rapid Recovery

Madison’s Boone is fighting back
from paralyzing accident

Army sergeant remained conscious
to direct own rescue

By Laura Hodges
Contributing Writer

(December 2010) – Twenty-eight year old Tom Boone spent the month of October learning to open and close his hands.
His father pried his hands open, then encouraged Tom to close them back into a fist. Open, close, repeat, 10 times, 100 times, all day long.

Tom and Meredith Boone

Photo by Laura Hodges

Tom and Meredith Boone say they
have enjoyed tremendous support
from their hometown of Madison
while Tom recovers from a
four-wheeling accident.

Staff Sgt. Boone has done the same kind of excruciating work all over his body since he was paralyzed in an off-road vehicle accident on Sept. 10. “You have to literally retrain every muscle in your body to do its job,” he said.
Boone is a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces, stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. He was attending a family gathering in Tennessee when he had the accident that nearly cost him his mobility.
He and other young family members were riding four-wheelers in a remote location when he lost control of the Polaris Razor he was driving. His cousin, Clinton Huber, was in the passenger seat.
Boone thinks he must have hit something. The two wheels on the driver’s side popped up, then he overcorrected, and the two wheels on the passenger side flew into the air. The Razor ended on its side, with Boone lying across it with his head and shoulders on the ground.
“My first thought was, ‘Man, my arms feel weird,’ ” he recounted. He remembers a tingling in his limbs. Then he realized he couldn’t move his arms or his feet.
That’s when his training as a Special Forces Medical Sergeant started to kick in. “I thought, ‘Really, did I just break my neck – in the middle of this field in Tennessee?’ ”
Fortunately, he not only realized exactly what had happened to him, he was able to remain conscious to direct his own rescue.
“The fact that I was awake saved my life,” said Boone. He told his relatives not to move him, but to find the cervical collar that was part of the Army medical equipment he carried in his car. He directed them how to stabilize his neck in the collar, so that he could be safely moved.
The cousin who had been in the accident with him had only minor injuries, so he went for help. A 911 call brought an ambulance, which took him to a hospital in Waverly, Tenn. When asked where he wanted to be treated, he asked, “Where is the nearest Level I trauma center?” Within a few hours of his accident, a helicopter delivered him to Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.
Testing determined that the problem was in his neck, specifically the C4 and C5 vertebrae, which were dislocated and fractured. Doctors first tried traction to pull the vertebrae back into place. A halo was screwed into Boone’s head, but no amount of pulling and twisting relieved the pressure. “I was completely dead from the neck down,” said Boone.
It was then that Boone met Dr. Clint J. Devin, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in disorders of the spine. When Devin started talking about surgery, Boone knew it was time to contact his wife of six weeks, Meredith, who was staying with Boone’s parents, Joe and Nadja, in Madison. The three started to Nashville immediately.
In the surgery that followed, Devin manually pulled the vertebrae back into position. He pulled out shards of broken bone and fused the two vertebrae with metal pins, rods and a piece of bone harvested from a cadaver.
The original plan was to remove a piece of Boone’s own hip bone for the graft, but that plan went awry when the surgeon severed an artery. Ultimately, the site from which the bone was to be taken became infected and caused Boone more problems than the spinal surgery itself.
The spinal surgery was immediately successful. As soon as he came out of his anesthetic fog, Boone tried to move his limbs. “They were moving, which was huge. I had already convinced myself that I was going to be a quadriplegic.”
“By the grace of God, it didn’t turn out that way,” he said.
Meredith Boone jokes now that she’ll have to get a doctor’s note to get her husband through airport security. “We call him Franken-Cop now,” she quipped.
“Yeah, part Robo-Cop and part Frankenstein,” smiles her husband.
Successful surgery was just the start of Boone’s recovery, however.
He spent 10 days in the intensive care unit at Vanderbilt, followed by six weeks at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. The Shepherd Center is one of the top rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. It specializes in spinal cord injuries.
“There is a reason why that hospital is ranked top 10 in the country,” said Boone, who responded well to the friendly and encouraging rehab staff. “The environment – it would be almost impossible to be unhappy there. Instead of focusing on what you couldn’t do, they focused on what you could do.”
Boone’s determination has also contributed to his rehabilitation, according to his wife. “He was such a fighter. All he wanted to do was stand,” Meredith said, even when standing inevitably led to vomiting. “You couldn’t stop him.”
Meredith has become something of an instant expert on spinal cord injuries. The Buffalo, N.Y., native said Tom’s injury is “incomplete” in that there is no physical damage to the spinal cord. “One thing they say about spinal cord injuries is that if you can move it, you can strengthen it.”
Strength is what Tom Boone is working on now with physical and occupational therapists at King’s Daughters’ Hospital & Health Services in Madison. “I get better every single day,” he said.
He’s currently on a 30-day convalescent leave from the U.S. Army, which he says has been exceptionally supportive during his ordeal. He has been assigned a liaison and an advocate through the Special Operations Care Group, as well as retired military mentors. In December he’ll return to Fort Bragg as an instructor for the Special Forces Qualification Course, the course from which he graduated in October 2009. That assignment allows him to remain on active status. “I can continue my therapy and earn my paycheck,” said Boone.
Tom and Meredith Boone are grateful to the people in Tom’s hometown of Madison who lent support during his recovery. Meredith said she covered an entire wall of Tom’s room at Vanderbilt with cards sent by students of Shawe Memorial High School. Tom graduated from Shawe in 2001, and his brother, Sam, is currently a junior there. “It’s nice to know that people are supporting you. It gives you motivation to fight harder,” said Tom Boone.
His father, Joe Boone, is proud to tell people that his son is already walking and running. “We feel very fortunate,” he said, remembering the five weeks his son spent flexing his hands, arms and legs at the Shepherd Center, with his parents and wife cheering him on every step of the way. “Every day people came in there with awful injuries. It makes you feel fortunate for whatever health you have.”

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