July 19, 2011
Among the worst
In 16 years of treating burn patients, Dr. Peter Grossman had seen all kinds of cases: firefighters caught in a backdraft, students ignited in chemistry labs, toddlers scorched with boiling soup.
Derek’s case was among the worst. His burns penetrated to the muscle. They threatened to shut down his kidneys, his liver and his lungs. He could bleed to death.
Grossman told Derek’s family not to expect much in the days ahead.
“Just get him to where he’s awake,” Derek’s father, Randy Thomas, told the doctor. “And I know he’ll take care of the rest.”
For the next four months, the young man was in an induced coma to spare him excruciating pain. Every inch of his burned skin had to be scraped off to protect him from infection. He swelled to more than twice his normal size.
“He looked like the Michelin man,” his father said. “All we could see were his eyes, his very swollen eyes, and one toe.”
He and his wife, Paula, spent endless hours caressing that toe. It was the only part of their son they could touch.
The couple and Derek’s sisters, Kayleen, then 21, and Sabrina, 17, settled in a tiny waiting room down the hall from the intensive care unit. They filled their space with blankets, pillows and a coffee maker. They decorated it with one of Derek’s shiny rugby trophies and two photos: Derek smiling just before his high school graduation, Derek flying down the football field to score a touchdown.
From that windowless waiting room, they weathered every surgery. Dr. Grossman and his team had to peel skin from the few areas where Derek wasn’t burned: his inner thighs and lower abdomen. They then stretched the skin with a machine and grafted it, piece by piece, onto Derek’s wounded body.
Every few days, they repeated the process, racing the clock against infection. His fevers topped 105. He consumed about 7,000 calories a day through a tube to stay alive. But the once muscular kid — 6 feet tall and 190 pounds before the accident — eventually shed more than 60 pounds.
Back home, friends organized blood drives, pizza fundraisers and a 5-K run. One family offered Paula and Randy an apartment near the hospital, rent free.
On the Internet, his Aunt Trudi documented the roller coaster ride. She began Aug. 13, 2010, four days after the accident:
Aug. 25: Derek’s vitals are not stable.
Aug. 25: Derek made a remarkable turnaround!!!
Wishes poured in from California, Idaho, Pennsylvania and Mississippi, from as far away as Kosovo. Some were from complete strangers who stumbled onto Derek’s story in cyberspace and couldn’t let go.
In November, Derek began to emerge from the coma. He learned to swallow again and to tighten his left hand; his right arm was still lifeless. He also learned to speak using a special tube. He surprised everyone on Dec. 11 with his first three words: “Happy Birthday, Mom.”
Then, nearly five months after the accident, Aunt Trudi shared the news: Derek was no longer in critical condition.
Paula and Randy were overjoyed. They also held their breath. The more clear-headed Derek became, the more questions he asked.
How did I get here? How long have I been here? How many people were in the car?
“He has not asked about other difficult questions,” Paula wrote to family. “About the fate of Amanda, Natalie, John or Drew….”
Derek’s buddies used to tease him about his good looks — tall with soft brown eyes and a crooked smile. His senior year at Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego, he was voted Class Heartthrob.
“When he first showed up on campus,” said best friend Danny Orendain, “it was like a free-for-all to see which girl could land him.”
In the end, he fell for Amanda Post.
She was goofy and tomboyish with a quirky, high-pitched laugh. Her friends would tease her: Amanda, wear some make-up. Amanda, comb your hair. Amanda, your uniform is on crooked.
Derek liked that she cared as little about her appearance as he did about his. Peach, as he called her because she loved peaches, kept up with him like one of the guys.
Who can sweat the most? Who can run the fastest? Who has more endurance? Their days revolved around their love of sports. For him, football, track and rugby. For her, field hockey and track.
One day, they made a “Life Adventures List” with 50 entries: kayak, parasail, hotel pool hop (they did this one), dress up as Smurfs, make a movie (they did this one too) and make seven new friends in one day.
Their parents were impressed by how they nurtured the relationship for nearly four years.
“It was so mature,” said Missy Post, Amanda’s mom. “They had their lives together and they had their lives apart.”
“Peach … We are companions and we love each other more than anyone could ever imagine. That is a dream. To have someone in life that you want to carry with you forever and they want the same thing.”
Near his name, he drew a picture of two very old people.
Derek was hunched over a walker and Amanda was hunched over a cane.
They had a blast at Mammoth. They hiked and ran and cycled and toward the end, fished for a bit. They set out for the eight-hour drive home early evening on Aug. 9.
Natalie Nield, a childhood friend of Derek’s, drove her parents’ Ford Expedition down Interstate 395, a highway that winds along the eastern edge of the state, hugging the Sierra Nevada. Derek sat behind Natalie with Amanda by his side. Next to Amanda was Drew Delis, a soccer player from the University of San Diego. Adams took the passenger seat.
Around 8:20 p.m. about five miles south of Bishop, police said, Natalie for some unknown reason drifted to the right, out of her lane and onto the shoulder. She then swerved, out of control, across the southbound lanes and into the center divider, a paved path about 20 feet wide where water drains during winter months. The SUV flipped over and began to roll, police said.
It slid, on its side, to the north side of the highway into oncoming traffic. A van also headed to a high-altitude training camp in Mammoth crashed into its undercarriage. It carried 13 people — 12 cross-country runners and one cheerleading coach from California Baptist University in Riverside. A sedan then barreled into the wreckage.
The SUV burst into flames.
In all, 15 people were injured. Three people died at the scene: Amanda, Natalie and Wendy Rice, the Riverside cheerleading coach. Adams, who was found alive after he was ejected from the car, died two months later from his injuries.
Time to stretch
Trembling, Derek heads in the direction of the elevator.
“Come on, old man,” his physical therapist, Sandy Moss, teases him. “I know you can do it.”
Time to stretch, to walk a bit, to go up three flights of stairs.
Derek cracks a frustrated smile. His hair is drenched in sweat and his legs, wrapped tightly in sheets of gauze, are itching out of control.
“It’s like ant hills crawling underneath my skin,” he says. “Some days, it’s so bad, I’d rather be in pain.”
The news spread around the burn unit, downstairs in the ICU, at the hospital front desk. Even the janitors applauded.
“I’ve learned a lot about perseverance,” he says. “One step at a time. Take a break. Don’t get exhausted. Then keep pushing.”
His sense of humor is contagious. He sings loudly and off-key. He squirts nurses with a water gun.
On bad days, and he has his share, he withdraws. He cancels his physical therapy, cancels his time in an oxygen chamber that helps his skin heal. He stays in bed for hours; sleeps or stares off into his sun-filled window, in a daze.
He said he had a hunch when he was little.
“I had a feeling one day, something big was going to happen to me, something life-changing. I never imagined it would be an accident.”
When Derek finally asked about Amanda, Randy and Paula told him the truth.
He broke down.
“He felt a grief so deep, from head to toe,” Paula remembers. “It was like nothing I’d ever seen.”
Even now, it hurts too much to bring her up. He talks to her instead and to God.
“I channel my bad thoughts toward Him. I look to Him,” he says, lying in his bed. “It’s not easy, but I try.”
‘Never lose hope’
Derek wants to run. He wants to play football and basketball. He wants to go to college and fill his mind with books.
Ever since doctors told him he’ll be released from the hospital Tuesday, he’s been anxious to get out. Get going.
“When people see me,” he says, “I want them to see hope. I want them to never lose hope.”
Randy and Paula tell him: “Son, it’s all up to you.”
All he wants now is to be normal. His friends help him feel that way.
They show up weekly at the hospital, sun-kissed in shorts and sandals, with huge smiles from ear to ear. They bring him burritos, movies and once, a giant poker table packed with colorful chips.
Derek likes to hear about their first year of college. They like to hear about his progress.
There are moments when things get awkward, when they have to look away and no one’s quite sure what to say. Then someone blurts out something funny and they’re laughing again.
Last week, three friends visited him for the first time.
Derek, giddy with excitement, got out of bed and greeted them at the door to Room 458.
The moment he saw them he threw his good arm up in the air and hollered:
“Booooo – yah!”
“Boo – yah!” they yelled back.
They threw their arms around him, just a bit gentler than before.
using the number/letter grid:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
A B C D E F G H I
J K L M N O P Q R
S T U V W X Y Z
A = 1 J = 1 S = 1
B = 2 K = 2 T = 2
C = 3 L = 3 U = 3
D = 4 M = 4 V = 4
E = 5 N = 5 W = 5
F = 6 O = 6 X = 6
G = 7 P = 7 Y = 7
H = 8 Q = 8 Z = 8
I = 9 R = 9
5 5 6 1 17
Derek Thomas 47
4 9 2 28 4 1 30
his soul number = 17 = Inspiring. Inspirational. Staying positive.
his outer personality = 30 = Counting his blessings.
his path of destiny / how he learns what he is here to learn = 47 = Famous. Name & fame. Notoriety. Name recognition. (Inter)nationally known. High profile. VIP. Well-known. Household name. Public life. Notable. Noteworthy.
find out your own numerology at: