Buckman man helps others while dealing with his own brain injury
Tom Theis suffered a traumatic brain injury after a traffic accident on Dec. 12, 1986, and now facilitates a support group at Whitney Center in St. Cloud for other brain injury survivors. Photo by Frank Lee
Tom Theis of Buckman doesn’t remember being in the traffic accident that ejected him from the driver’s seat three decades ago and resulted in his traumatic brain injury, but he is constantly reminded of it.
“The first responders tried to stabilize me as best they could – they didn’t want to move me – because I was just laying out on the highway after I flew out of the vehicle,” Theis said.
Theis said he was about a mile south of Buckman on Highway 25 in “pitch dark” conditions on Dec. 12, 1986, when his vehicle slammed into a parked tractor without its lights on the road.
“People came over the hill from the south, and they couldn’t see the tractor manure spreader or that my vehicle had hit it and went off to the side, and so they hit my vehicle,” Theis said.
The husband and father later decided to turn his personal tragedy into something positive by facilitating a monthly brain injury support group at the Whitney Center in St. Cloud.
Theis was initially taken to Little Falls to be treated, but at the time, the health care facility was not equipped to handle his traumatic brain injury, so he was transferred to St. Cloud Hospital.
“In St. Cloud, they tried to stabilize me. They put me on eight or 10 different machines hooked up to me, and I was so hot they had to put me on a bed of ice for a couple of days,” he said.
The Army veteran said he was in a coma for 67 days and was one of the first ones with a traumatic brain injury at the St. Cloud VA Health Care System where he was later transferred.
“They said, ‘We don’t think he’s going to live, but we’re going to do the best we can,’” he said. “But after four or five days, they said, ‘Well, there’s a chance that he might live.’”
Theis now works at Wolters Kluwer of St. Cloud, and since his accident, he helps other brain injury victims in the support group, which is held the third Tuesday of every month at 6 p.m.
“From the time the crash happened until the time I got out of the VA was a good four months,” he said. “I had to learn how to walk and talk and everything all over again.”
Because of his brain injury, he said he does not remember what happened in the two months leading up to that fateful traffic accident which changed his life irrevocably and forever.
“I can’t remember a thing from like about two months before my brain injury,” Theis said. “And from two months back to about five or six months back, all I remember is about 30 percent of it.”
Theis was injured on the left side of his brain, which is responsible for speaking and listening, reading and writing, memory for spoken and written messages, and controlling the right side of his body.
“To this day, part of my disabilities is that I can talk real good and everything, but I can never remember people’s names,” said Theis, who instead uses nicknames for people he encounters.
“For instance, one woman I work with, I call her ‘Daytona’ … because she used to go down to the car races or talk about the car races out at Daytona Beach, so that’s what I call her.”
The evening support group facilitated by Theis at the Whitney Center is for brain injury survivors, and their family and friends. Craig Martinson facilitates a support group at 10:30 a.m. the second and the fourth Mondays of every month, also at Whitney, for survivors only.
“We’ve had people attend from all the way down from Elk River, all the way from out by Long Prairie and Little Falls, and we’ve had people come in all the way out from Milaca,” Theis said.
“We have some who come who can barely walk. We have some that have a hard time talking. … It’s about all kinds of disabilities and hidden disabilities.”
For more information about the brain injury support group at Whitney Center in St. Cloud, call Theis at 320-290-4968, and leave your name and phone number where you can be reached.