Peer & Family Support Spotlight: Sterling Thomas

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on June 29, 2021 # Peer & Family Support Program

It was the final game of Sterling Thomas’ freshman year playing football for Lindenwood University in Saint Charles, Missouri. Thomas’ Tulsa, Oklahoma high school team had won four consecutive state championships (2008-2011), and the 18-year-old defensive back was recruited by Lindenwood in 2012. He was excited to be playing in the televised game against Missouri Southern State.

“My head dropped in a tackle, and I was knocked to the ground,” says Thomas, who sustained a C5-C6 complete spinal cord injury in the hit. “I was unable to move.”

Like many, it took Thomas a while to process the extent of his injury.

“I kept thinking I would walk again,” says Thomas. “I remember sitting in a class for newly injured people in rehab and watching a video of people in wheelchairs. That’s when I realized I might be in a chair for the rest of my life.”

Thomas chose to go to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Georgia, because it was listed among the top ten rehabilitation hospitals in the U.S. for spinal cord injury and because that’s where Devon Walker went. Walker sustained a spinal cord injury in Tulsa a couple of months prior to Thomas’ injury while playing football for Tulane University against the University of Tulsa. The Walker family connected Thomas with Reeve Foundation Information Specialist Bernadette Mauro.

“Bernadette was such a great resource for our family,” says Thomas. “I was thrilled when she set up a call for me with Eric LeGrand a couple of years ago. He is such an inspiration to everyone. Talking with him really motivated me.”

While at Shepherd, Thomas also participated in the Reeve Foundation NeuroRecovery Network (NRN) for a month. During his last week of inpatient therapy, a therapist asked Thomas to speak with a new patient who was struggling to adjust to his injury. The therapist told Thomas that the patient was like a different person after he and Thomas spoke.

“He seemed really open to hearing about my experience. It made me feel good to help someone. It gave me purpose,” says Thomas.

In 2015, Thomas decided to train to be a mentor through the Reeve Foundation Peer & Family Support Program. Over the years, he has spoken with about 10 people. Some connections are just a phone call or two, while others have continued much longer, including one local peer who Thomas has connected with in person or on the phone several times a month for the last three years.

“It is great when we form a nice bond,” says Thomas. With one of his more recent peers, Chris Steven, the conversations range from setting goals and how to work on leg muscles to many other details of daily life with a spinal cord injury.

“At first, I didn’t think it would help to talk with someone that’s not face-to-face and in my city,” says Steven. “But Sterling, in the times we spoke, was great; he answered all my questions and brought up things to me that I didn’t think about and gave me some great advice. He was really helpful.”

In 2016, Thomas decided to take another step toward helping others by starting pushpushpray.org, a 501(c)(3) non-profit foundation with a mission to inspire hope, empower, and enrich the quality of life of individuals living with spinal cord injuries. While he was in rehab, another foundation had helped him buy a shower chair that was not covered by insurance. He was grateful for the support and wanted to offer the same opportunity to others.

“In the Midwest, there are not a lot of resources for spinal cord injury,” says Thomas. “I wanted to bring help to the people here and build awareness in the area. Many don’t have the money to access rehab and other resources they need.”

To date, the Push Push Pray Foundation has given out almost $60,000 in grants to more than two dozen individuals needing support for things ranging from activity-based therapy to Active Hands gripping aids and walking braces to an accessible deck ramp.

“Helping others really changed my mindset about how I feel about myself,” says Thomas, who now works as an account manager with State Farm Insurance. “There is no one set way to do things in this new life. You just need to hold on to what is possible and know things can get better in the long run.”

You can request a Peer & Family Support Program mentor here.

This project was supported, in part, by grant number 90PRRC0002, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.