Tom Garber, subschool principal at Lake Braddock Secondary School and a resident of Centreville's Gate Post Estates, has always kept physically fit by swimming, golfing and working out at a gym. He still does these things — it's just that he's in a wheelchair now.
All was well until Oct. 24, 2003. Garber had gone golfing after work and attended a Lake Braddock football game that night. But on his way home, he felt a pain in his upper back and chest. He didn't know what was wrong, so he took a painkiller and went to bed, but the pain worsened.
"I told my wife to call the rescue squad," said Garber, 49. "I walked to the gurney, and that's the last time I walked."
He and his wife, Pat, a fifth-grade LD teacher at Centreville Elementary, arrived at Inova Fair Oaks Hospital shortly after midnight. And by then, Garber couldn't feel or move anything from his chest down.
Tests revealed that Garber had an arterial venus fistula (AVF) — meaning that a blood vessel between his shoulder blades had leaked and caused a blood clot between two vertebrae in his upper back. This clot caused pressure on his spine. But what caused the leak — either something genetic or a result of a near-fatal car crash Garber had in 1986 — still remains a mystery.
Garber was flown to Inova Fairfax Hospital for emergency neurosurgery to remove the clot and clean up the area. "The neurosurgeon said the first 30 hours after surgery would tell us a lot about Tom's chances of recovery," said Pat Garber. "The 30 hours came and went, and there was no movement or feeling."
"After the surgery, I thought, 'OK, they've fixed me now,'" said Tom Garber. "But I still couldn't move anything. I wondered how I'd deal with it." His wife, though, wasn't surprised. Before they left Fair Oaks, Pat Garber said, "They were poking him with pins up to his chest and he had no feeling; I knew he was paralyzed."
MEANWHILE, Tom Garber was trying to put up a front for Pat and their children. Daughter Alison, 21, graduated from Centreville High and is now a senior at James Madison University; son Phillip, 18, graduated from Westfield High and is a freshman at Christopher Newport University.
"I told them, 'It's gonna be OK; don't worry,'" said Tom Garber. "But internally, I was pretty depressed. You do the 'Why me?' sort of thing."
"We all went through it," said Pat Garber.
"Then I quickly got to the point where you say, 'OK, you've been dealt a bad hand; now what are you going to do?'" said Tom Garber. "I thought, 'OK, I can rehabilitate it back and get better. I'm going to fight this.'"
His arms, neck and upper chest were fine, but he was now classified as a paraplegic — paralyzed from the chest down. After a week at Fairfax Hospital, Tom Garber spent four weeks at Mount Vernon Rehabilitation Hospital, undergoing at least three hours a day of physical, occupational and recreational therapy.
"I was thrilled when I got there because it meant I was progressing somehow, was doing something and would be rehabilitated as best as I could," said Tom Garber. And his family rallied 'round. Phillip still had to continue his senior year in high school, but Pat took three months off work, and Alison came home from college.
"The therapists were very good," said Tom Garber. "I still remember the first day I sat up and got out of bed, a week and a half after the accident. The therapy was really helpful to me, and I worked my butt off." He had to learn how to get dressed and bathed, to go to the bathroom by himself, and to transfer from bed to chair and chair to exercise mat.
"Many people given the hand that Tom was dealt would give up," said Pat Garber. "Throughout his rehabilitation, he became known for his positive, never-give-up attitude. If a therapist asked him to do something, he would always do what was asked and more."
THROUGH A great deal of effort and determination, Tom Garber even learned to swim again, using only his arms, while two-thirds of his body dragged behind him. Once he got aqua shoes to protect his feet from dragging on the bottom of the pool, he swam 1/4 of a mile.
"He was ecstatic," said Pat Garber. "The therapists were amazed, and we were very proud."
As Tom Garber worked through his rehabilitation, family and friends were busy renovating Garber's house to accommodate a man on wheels. "Ramps had to be built, a bathroom had to be gutted and rebuilt to accommodate his wheelchair, and a special hospital bed had to be delivered," said Pat Garber. "And a stair glider had to be installed so he could get up to our bedroom, as well as to the only bathroom in the house he'd be able to get into."
Friends, neighbors and educators — Tom has worked 25 years for Fairfax County Public Schools, and Pat Garber has worked there for 11 years — showered them with meals, cards, gifts, cookies, cash, yard work and even gasoline cards for family visits to see him at Mount Vernon. "Everyone was absolutely phenomenal and incredibly generous," said Tom Garber. "And the teachers at Braddock chipped in to buy me a second, more-compact wheelchair for upstairs at home."
The family's new Acura TL had to be sold and replaced with a specially equipped, handicap-accessible minivan.
"It's the kind with a ramp that goes out to the side and requires the wide [parking] space beside it with the white lines painted on it so he can get in and out," said Pat Garber.
TOM GARBER came home just after Thanksgiving, and said Pat Garber, "Physical therapists, occupational therapists and nurses came and went from our home, along with plumbers, carpenters and delivery people bringing medical supplies."
Although happy to be home, Tom Garber said, "The tricky part was learning how to do everything all over again. The wheelchair, bed and carpet were different, and the handicap bathroom wasn't built yet, so it was frustrating. But everything is problem-solving; you learn a whole new set of skills and discover there are always alternatives."
Doctors said Tom Garber's good physical condition played a big part in his rehabilitation. Initially, he exercised and stretched daily at home, but he eventually returned to his gym, Life Time Fitness, in Centreville. Employees help him in and out of their pool, so he now swims a half-mile a week. He also lifts weights twice weekly.
"Life Time's been wonderful to me," said Tom Garber. "For free, the head trainer, Andy Pfefferkorn, figured out which weight machines and exercises would be good for me. Now I do everything myself, and strangers come up to me and say what an inspiration I am. That's not my intent; but if it helps somebody else, that's OK."
Tom Garber also does physical therapy twice weekly at Inova Sunrise in Fair Oaks with "a wonderful therapist named Helen Parker, who specializes in spinal-cord injuries and stroke." And in one day at the Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center in Fishersville, Va., he learned how to drive with hand controls. "It meant freedom, independence — I could now drive myself to places," he said.
In April — five months after his ordeal began — Tom Garber returned to work at Lake Braddock and was greeted joyously with balloons, a banner, cake, hugs and cheers from the students. "Tom Garber is my hero," said Principal Linda Burke. "His strength, courage and tenacity have inspired both students and staff at Lake Braddock, and all of us are honored to work with Tom every day."
Using a special cart and children's clubs, Tom Garber even golfs again. More importantly, said Pat Garber, "He can speak, hug and kiss me and the kids; his mind is still sharp and clear. He's still the same person he was before — it's just a little more challenging."
Tom Garber also fully intends to walk again. "I really think I'm gonna beat this," he said. "It's an incomplete spinal-cord injury. Nothing is cut or severed. The recovery rate is incredibly slow, but stem-cell research has greatly expedited it for people in other countries."
He now considers each day a blessing and a chance to make a difference for others. "I've learned so much in the last 10 months about my friends, family, job — everything has a different perspective," he said. "Life has much more value."
Tom Garber has even discovered he loves rolling down ramps in his wheelchair.
"The security guys at school tease him that they're gonna get the radar gun out for him," said Pat Garber.
But, said Tom Garber, "When something like this happens, you have to find the humor in things. You learn what's important really fast. We thank our family, friends, neighbors and co-workers for all their support; we couldn't have done it without them."