Jordan was a fit and healthy schoolboy with a keen interest in scuba diving when his life was turned upside down. “One moment I was in the water with my dive gear preparing to explore the marine life,” he says. “And the next moment I knew something was not right, because I found my scuba fins floating around me.” Seven years ago, at age 16, he was on a boating trip to the Florida Keys in southeast US with his parents Liz and Victor Kennedy-Thomas, who are both doctors, when he was involved in a terrible accident.
All was going well until he slipped into the water and was dragged feet-first into the boat’s fast-whirring propellers. Jordan looked down through his goggles and found the water around him turning red. He blinked and then saw something shocking: both of his legs were missing from below the knees.
“I never lost consciousness so I knew what was happening the whole time,’’ says Jordan, who loves sports and was captain of his school’s golf team. Jordan’s father Victor immediately leapt into the water to save his son. “Once I got him aboard, Liz and I went into triage mode, determining the priority of treatments based on the severity of the condition to stabilise the bleeding.’’
A distraught Liz was shocked. “I couldn’t believe that my son was potentially dying. As a mother, all I could think of was to say how much I loved him and what he meant to me.’’ After giving Jordan first aid, Victor contacted the emergency services to put them on standby before racing the boat to the shore, where paramedics were already on the scene. They rushed Jordan to a hospital where he spent two weeks undergoing three bouts of surgery on what was left of his legs.
“After surgery I was transferred to a rehab hospital in Miami where I stayed for several weeks and learned to walk again with my prosthetic limbs,’’ he says. Thanks to his parents, Jordan got the best medical care available. While they were able to pay for top-of-the-line prosthetics for him that cost around $24,000 (Dh88,140) so he could go back to doing a lot of what he used to do before the accident, Jordan found that a lot of other patients in the hospital weren’t so lucky.
“There were many kids who weren’t financially well off and who didn’t have proper insurance, which would allow them to get a reasonably good set of prosthetic limbs,’’ he says.
Life is not over
Now 23 years old and a junior in international business at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, Jordan says, “I knew at the time that my life wasn’t over. I was in a situation where I could see how much better I had it than a lot of kids and it made me think about what I could do to help.” Before Jordan left the hospital, he’d made up his mind; he would set up a charity – the Jordan Thomas Foundation – that would provide prosthetics for children of traumatic injury and limb loss until they are grown up and don’t require the prosthetic to be replaced.
Jordan, who credits his physical and mental recovery to, “my parents, the people around me and the excellent doctors’’, had worked on a few philanthropic activities while at school but nothing on a major scale. “It was only when I saw kids in the hospital go home without the things that they needed – like prosthetics – when I decided that I had to do something about it to help them. One kid in particular was badly burned and had lost a leg in a fire that broke out in his home in Florida. He had this great attitude. I didn’t know his name, but he really inspired me.’’
Initially Jordan asked his family to give a donation to help the child get a prosthetic limb. But by then he had read enough about prostheses to know that it would only benefit the child in the short term. “Prostheses for kids aren’t things you fit once and forget about; they need to be monitored at regular intervals and replaced at the right time,’’ he says. Jordan, who in 2009 won the International Youth in Philanthropy Award and the National Courage Award (which the late Christopher Reeve, star of Superman, has also won) from the Courage Center, a rehab centre in Minnesota, found that in many cases insurance companies in the US pay for one prosthesis in a child’s lifetime.
“It’s like giving an eight-year-old a pair of shoes and saying, ‘Here, wear these for the rest of your life.’ It’s not feasible. You need to replace it periodically depending on the child’s needs and as he or she grows,’’ says Jordan. The first thing he did was have a fund-raiser. He got his family and friends together and hosted a dinner, a silent auction and a golf tournament in 2006. “People are great,” he says. “They supported us and we netted about $100,000 – enough to support one child.’’
It costs around $100,000 to provide prostheses for a child from age four until age 18 or 20 because each child needs new prostheses about every 18 to 24 months depending on the child’s growth, says Jordan. There are 12 members on the Jordan Thomas Foundation’s board of directors. Jordan is the president and his father is the vice-president. Requests for prosthesis are first sent to the foundation either by the hospital treating the child or by the child’s family. Once the board approves, the cost of providing prosthetics for the child is covered by the foundation.
Surgery aged two
One of the children who benefits from prosthetics provided by Jordan’s foundation is Noah. “This little boy had to undergo surgery at the age of two [in late 2006] on his right leg due to a blood clot that formed following heart surgery he underwent to remedy a congenital defect,’’ says Jordan. Blood clots are not uncommon after surgery – especially major surgery on the pelvis, knees or hip. Blood clots, known as deep vein thrombosis, form most often in the lower leg or thigh.
Immobility after surgery leads to a decrease in blood return from the veins to the heart, since activity normally helps move blood back to the heart. Blood pools in the legs leading to development of blood clots. “While the doctors were able to cure his heart condition, they were unable to save his leg,’’ says Jordan. The hospital provided the child with a prosthetic limb, but it was a basic one that didn’t bend at the knee so Noah was finding it difficult to move around. “His family contacted our foundation and we gave him a leg with a bendable knee. Noah is now nine years old and moves around like a normal boy his age. He’s even taken up karate,’’ says Jordan proudly.
“We replace the prosthesis whenever he needs it. He once sent us a request saying he wanted a foot with a separate big toe so he could wear sandals like his parents in summer. We promptly made arrangements to get one made and sent it to him.’’ Another child who Jordan’s foundation helped is eight-year old Samantha Fraser, who was born with a stub for her left leg. “Samantha’s parents lost their jobs, so they weren’t able to pay for a new prosthetic limb for their daughter when she outgrew the one that was provided by the hospital,” says Jordan.
“It kept falling off in the playground while little Samantha was playing and she was getting increasingly unhappy because she couldn’t run and play like other kids her age. “Her parents saw me on the CNN Heroes show in 2009 and contacted the foundation, and since then we have been providing a new prosthesis for her as often as her growth requires. She now in-line skates, rides a bicycle and even rides horses… She is amazing and beats me at board games,’’ says Jordan.
Jordan and Samantha, who also lives in Florida, and are close friends, and whenever they meet, they end up comparing their new prostheses. “We don’t know what we would have done without Jordan,’’ says Samantha’s mother Susan. “It’s thanks to him that Samantha is able to run and play like other kids.’’ Another child who is indebted to the foundation is Luna. Now a two-year-old, she was born with one leg deficient. Her family could not afford a prosthesis and without one, she simply had to drag herself around.
The foundation became aware of her condition through a social worker. “We promptly assisted in getting her a set of prosthesis, and the first time she had them on she walked down the parallel bars unattended,” says Jordan. “In two days she was running from her mother to her father. There’s nothing better to see than this. She’s just a toddler, so a new prosthesis will give her great mobility.’’
The foundation has also been helping children in other countries. For instance, Ruby, who lives in Honduras, lost her leg below the knee and several fingers on one hand in a fire. Her parents, who escaped with minor injuries, had to put her in an orphanage as they were too poor to look after her. A local physician who met the little girl on a mission trip was determined to help her get a prosthesis, and after hearing about Jordan and his foundation, he contacted them to see if they could help Ruby.
“The board of directors did the usual checks and once it was cleared, arrangements were made to get her a prosthetic limb. From propping her leg on a crutch and hobbling around, Ruby now runs and plays just like other children her age. As a young teenager, the first thing she wanted to do after she got her prosthesis was host a dance for her girlfriends,’’ says Jordan.
Money in the bank
The fund-raisers have become annual affairs, and over the years they have raised around $700,000, which the Jordan Thomas Foundation has used to commit to helping seven children who have either lost limbs in accidents or were born without them. “We do not commit to helping a child until we have most of the funds in the bank,” says Jordan. “We have also provided extras for some of the children, like a limb with a separate big toe for Noah and a skin glove with two digits for Ruby to replace the fingers she lost in the fire.
The glove not only covers up her burn scars well, but it totally matches her other arm. This is important for a 13-year-old girl,’’ says Jordan. “We also have a partnership in Haiti to provide prostheses for victims of the earthquake and we continue to support this effort that is providing eight to ten prostheses a month.’’ Jordan is happy with the way his foundation is progressing and he is grateful to his family for all the support that they have provided. “I started at day one to see how I could help one person, then it expanded from there.
I have two older brothers, Zac, 25, and Barrett, 28, and they both help at the fund-raisers. They have provided me with immeasurable support since my accident,’’ says Jordan. His mother Liz is proud of her son’s activities. “The foundation was his idea from the very beginning,’’ she says. “It turned into something very positive out of something that was otherwise devastating. It helped us all bond and grow.
I still have a hard time talking about the accident to this day. We are just so grateful that he survived and that he has taken this accident and turned it into something good for other people.’’ Jordan’s father, too, is unflinching in his support for the project. “Jordan has been a real trooper through it all. We are so thankful that he made it and is doing well. He has accepted the challenge and moved on. We are very proud of him.”
When not busy with his studies, Jordan takes time off to speak at leadership conferences and fund-raisers. “I have been to Dubai to speak at a leadership conference and have offers to visit Spain, Mexico and Haiti. I loved Dubai and was amazed by its size and scope. The people were very friendly and welcoming and I look forward to coming back soon,” he says. “I love to travel internationally, but also realise there is no place like home.
I coach the local golf team but what I love doing is working with kids.” And the best thank-you note Jordan’s ever received? “The one from Ruby,’’ he says. “It said, ‘Dear Jordan Thomas. Thank you for my leg. I like to dance with my new leg. Love, Ruby.’ “Any time we can help someone dance, it’s all worthwhile.’’
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
- Who: Jordan Thomas
- What: Providing prosthetic limbs to children who need them
- How: Through the Jordan Thomas Foundation (www.jordanthomasfoundation.org)