The Thing About Trauma

As most of you remember, at 21 years old, you are on top of the world. You’re still young, naïve, and invincible. That all changed for me on December 11, 2014.

On December 11th, 2014 I was traveling to visit my best friend in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was driving in the left lane of Interstate 840, south of Nashville, when a vehicle crossed the grass median and struck my truck head-on. Upon impact, the fuel line in my truck ruptured causing my truck to burst into flames and my beloved red 2003 Chevy Silverado was sent flipping down the interstate in ball of fire for nearly the length of a football field. I was trapped in my burning truck, unable to get out due to the injuries the impact caused. Thankfully, a good samaritan and my personal hero, Tony Cooper, was there to save my life and carry me away from my truck seconds before it was fully engulfed. In an instant I went from being a healthy and active 21 year old, to a trauma survivor with a shattered spinal column, crushed feet and ankles, and a snapped femur complemented by a broken sternum and clavicle.

I was immediately transported via LifeFlight to Vanderbilt University Medical Center where I underwent multiple surgeries over a series of days and weeks to rebuild and fuse my spinal column, place titanium rods throughout my femur, hip, and knee, and reconstruct my feet and ankles. Then comes the part every trauma survivor can relate to. It’s the part of this experience where my surgeon enters my room and sits at the foot of my bed and tells me everything I won’t be able to do again. He tells me what my limitations will be and what my life will look like as a result of this random, split-second accident.

And that’s the thing about trauma.

Trauma is different from typical diseases that affect the human body. By no means, am I implying that trauma is any worse than any other disease or that my situation was any more difficult than those facing tragic diagnoses. What I mean is that with trauma there are no warning signs. There is no time to cope with what is happening to you. There is no time to ask questions about your options or the severity of your situation. You don’t experience symptoms like you might with other diseases of the human body.  Trauma is immediate. One second you are completing a daily mundane task, like driving on the interstate, and the next moment you can be strapped to a stretcher and loaded into a helicopter.

Trauma is not only immediate, its lifelong. Unlike some diseases and illnesses, you don’t ever overcome or beat trauma. It becomes a part of who you are. I can’t ever take back the effects of the trauma on my body no matter how hard I work out, what my diet is, or what surgeries I have. People ask me all the time, “Are you back to normal?” I typically respond yes, because it’s the short answer. I know they mean well, and I know they don’t really know what else to say. But here’s the truth: I won’t ever be “normal” again. I don’t remember what it’s like to easily be able to bend down and tie my shoes or what it’s like to wake up in the morning and not have to try to gain my balance because my feet hurt so badly. I don’t remember what it’s like to travel without having to take extra compression socks and shoes because of the swelling in my legs and feet or what it’s like for my leg to not randomly go numb as I walk down the hall at work. I don’t remember what it’s like to not experience severe back pain on a daily basis. As a trauma survivor, you simply learn to live a new life- a new kind of normal.

What I do know is that my trauma is a part of who I am. I can’t take it back. It’s part of my story. But it’s the beginning of my story, not the end. I wouldn’t take back anything that happened on December 11th, 2014 or anything that has happened after because it has made me into the man I am today. It’s fueled a burning desire in me to never take life for granted and to accomplish and achieve as much as I possibly can while I have the gift of life. It’s what has fueled me to become an Ironman triathlete. It’s what makes me get on my bike everyday and sweat and hurt, knowing that I am stronger than I was the day before. It’s what makes me go out and run long distances, even though it causes my feet to hurt and my back to lock up, because I know with every step the pain makes me stronger-emotionally and mentally.

My story is a good one. It’s one of overcoming the odds and my expected limitations. However, the unfortunate reality of my story is the only reason I am at the point I am at today is because of money. You see, I spent a long time in the hospital, and then I was released to go home and have outpatient physical therapy. Insurance only pays for physical therapy for so long, and by the time my insurance had stopped paying, I still couldn’t stand or walk. I was still in a wheelchair.  I was far from where I needed to be. This is where most trauma survivors’ stories end. They go home, and they continue to live painful lives, often plateauing in their recovery and turning to pain killers to manage the daily pain. Thankfully my family was able to pay for ongoing physical therapy for me after insurance stopped paying. Then when PT got me so far, we began paying for strength and athletic training for me on a weekly basis. This is where I regained feeling in my back and feet, where I gained enough strength to not walk with a limp anymore, where I slowly started to walk further and longer and then run. This is where I became myself again, and I still workout there every week. My story is what it is because of money, and that’s the worst part. It’s tragic.

Trauma Doesn’t Discriminate

Trauma can hit anyone at any point in time. Trauma survivors have to deal with pain, injury, loss of physical ability or activity, and even more than that, they cope with the emotions of feeling inadequate, damaged or handicapped. Money shouldn’t be the only thing getting in the way of people getting the help they need to overcome their trauma. I don’t want any trauma survivors’ story to end because insurance stops paying or they don’t have the finances to get the extra help they need. That’s not ok.

Because of our experience, my wife, Abby, and I have been working on an idea that has become a reality to help other trauma victims become empowered and capable survivors, like myself. We are so excited to announce the launch of TENNACITY- a non-profit focused on helping trauma survivors lead active and fulfilling lifestyles by providing access to physical therapy and strength training for those who don’t have the financial resources or access to continue recovery. This is for those whose story would otherwise end a lot sooner than mine did.

Invest in the Mission of TENNACITY

As we launch this organization, we ask all of our friends, family and supporters to take time to join and invest in our mission. Visit to read our story, check out our stellar team of board members, and learn more about our mission. Get engaged with our social media accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn by searching for “TENNACITY foundation.”

Abby and I sincerely thank each and every one of you for your support. We are excited to begin serving our community in this capacity with your involvement. Stay tuned later next week- I have another crazy idea to get TENNACITY going.

-Thomas Stephenson