It was September 3, 2012, and Brooke Thabit was having a great Labor Day. The 17-year-old high school student from Florida was a team rider for the local surf shop, she loved doing community service work for Surfers For Autism and The Special Olympics, and she was celebrating the last big US holiday of the summer with her friends. Hanging out on a dock over the ocean she loved so much, she dived in for a dip…
And her life changed in a heartbeat.
What Brooke didn’t know was that the water was only three feet deep. When she struck bottom her neck fractured in three places, immediately paralyzing her from the chest down.
“At the very beginning, my parents were like, ‘We’re going to send you to the best rehab and you’re going to recover,’” Brooke recalls. “And I honestly thought, ‘This is going to be no big deal. I’m gonna bounce back from this.’”
She goes on, “I started physical therapy, and they sat me up… and I passed out.”
That’s when Brooke realized just what she was facing: a terrifically slow, very difficult process. At first, she couldn’t even move her arms, so initial therapy focused on the basics.
“Early on I could barely brush my own teeth. Or wash my own hair,” she explains.
“I’m paralyzed, not paralyzed for life.”
There was pain, too. Even when paralyzed patients can’t feel external stimulation, they can sometimes have nerve pain that Brooke describes as “kind of crazy, like your skin melting on a hot car.”
But with her positive attitude and the constant support of her family, friends and community, Brooke has made steady progress. She finished high school and at 21 she now attends the Savannah College of Art and Design. When she graduates, she hopes to design spaces for people with disabilities.
And while Brooke is still considered a quadriplegic and can’t move her hands, thanks to her dedication to physical training she can now move her arms. She is beginning to initiate steps with the help of her physical therapist, pedal a stationary bike and use a treadmill while suspended from a special harness. Plus she has regained enough core strength and balance to lock her knees and stand on her own for short periods of time – a huge milestone.
Brooke works so hard partly to stay healthy despite the medical challenges of paralysis, and also because she wants to be prepared when researchers find a cure for spinal cord injury one day. “I’m paralyzed, not paralyzed for life,” she states.
The latest project Brooke has taken on is learning to drive a specially modified auto. And, still the same free spirit she’s always been, she’s back to hanging out with her friends, who’ve never left her.
“The number one thing you can do for a person with an injury like this is to be there for them and to treat them like they’re normal. If you have a question, just ask, don’t stare,” she says. “My friends know me so well now. They pick me up and just throw me in their car to go out together.”
"I try to bring awareness to what the run is for, and to give a face to the cause. I want people to see what an impact they can have.”
Brooke has taken part in the Wings for Life World Run ever since the first race in 2014. Her team, Team Brooke, push her wheelchair, and she has become an official Ambassador for the movement.
“As an Ambassador, I try to bring awareness to what the run is for, and to give a face to the cause. I want people to see what an impact they can have.” she explains, “If you’re not sure whether you should participate, definitely do it, you won’t regret it. The atmosphere is always so happy – and everybody tells me they run farther than they expect to. It’s a wonderful day.”
Brooke continues, “We don’t know when the cure will come, but your entry makes a huge difference. It could be the difference.”
Anita Gerhardter, Wings for Life CEO