When 34-year-old father-of-two Cole Thomas swerved to avoid a deer on the road last September, his car rolled three times and he woke up paralyzed from the waist down.
Doctors at St. Anthony's Hospital in Chicago told Thomas that he had shattered his L2 vertebra (a bone located in the lower part of the spine), and pieces of it had been scattered and embedded throughout his spinal cord. The Rockford, Illinois-based dad underwent surgery to remove the pieces of bone and insert rods that would stabilize his spine — but his doctors told him he would likely never walk again.
Thomas wasn't deterred by the prognosis, however. He dreamed of dancing with his wife, Tara, again, and he wanted to walk his daughters, 9-year-old Rylie and 5-year-old Taylor, down the aisle at their weddings someday. So, instead of a resigning himself to a life spent in a wheelchair, he posted a plea to Facebook in hopes that one of his friends might have some information about physical therapy or other resources that could help him.
Ultimately, a relative came across some information on Chicago's Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, a facility that provides rehab services for a wide variety of conditions. Thomas decided to give it a shot, and just eight days after his accident, he began in-patient therapy at Shirley Ryan.
I knew I was going to have to give rehab and therapy 110 percent. I have to walk again, no matter what.
The 34-year-old followed the lab's high-intensity, task-specific rehabilitation program for a month but made little progress. He wasn't able to move much by himself, and none of the feeling had returned to his legs. He began to feel discouraged.
"At first, it is really bleak," Thomas told TODAY. "I didn't know anything. You're basically a baby just coming into the world... It put me down in the dumps."
But then he noticed his left big toe was moving. Not only did his hope and determination return full-force, but they did so with amazing results: In the months that followed, he achieved unexpected levels of progress, graduating from in-patient therapy to day therapy and moving from a walker and braces to just a walker to no assistance at all.
"His recovery has been remarkable," Thomas' physical therapist, Megan Hufnagel, told TODAY. "Every single week, he was reaching milestones. Every Friday, Cole did something new."
And so, just seven months after doctors told him he would never walk again, Thomas walked out the doors of the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab on his own two feet. This, of course, was thanks in no small part to his hard work and, ultimately, his attitude — which Hufnagel said is incredibly "important in terms of recovery."
"I knew I was going to have to give rehab and therapy 110 percent just like I did my job," said Thomas, who now hopes to become a physical therapist in the future. "I have to walk again, no matter what. I have to be the best I could be."