Ex-paratrooper determined to string own lights next year
By Barbara Jones
Independent Tribune

It was a beautiful day on Dec. 2 of last year when the lives of the Kraft family were turned upside down forever.
"It was gorgeous, warm enough for summer," said Janet Kraft of Concord.

Tom Kraft, 48, was in shorts, but he was doing a winter job on a warm Sunday afternoon -- putting up Christmas lights.

He had put an extension ladder on the roof of the porch in order to string lights on the second story eaves.

"All of the neighbors were out in their yards, too," Janet Kraft said. "I thought what he was doing looked dangerous and asked the neighbor to tell him to get down."

But many men are natural risk takers, Mrs. Kraft said, and her husband, an ex-paratrooper, wasn't afraid of heights.

Tom Kraft felt his ladder slipping, but couldn't do a rolling fall because his foot caught on the gutter.

He fell head first off the ladder and into some shrubs below.

He was lucky he didn't hit the pavement or the rocks surrounding the shrubs, Mr. Kraft said.

"One neighbor came running over and we started to move him because he was face first in the shrubs," Mrs. Kraft said.

But another neighbor warned them not to, as they could hurt him even more. Janet Kraft was told to call 911.

When paramedics arrived, Tom Kraft was conscious but not in good shape.

"I had no feeling in my extremities," he said. "They put a collar on me and strapped me to a backboard."

Wisely, the paramedics did not even attempt to turn him over until they had the backboard strapped to him.

Kraft was taken by ambulance to NorthEast Medical Center, where he was given blood and morphine.

Even though the only visible marks on him were a couple of small abrasions, physicians had been able to determine that Kraft had mashed his fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae in his neck, which damaged his spinal cord.

His neck bone had split and bounced against his spine, then went back where it belonged, Kraft said.

Had either his neighbors, wife or paramedics moved him without a brace, the bone in his neck would have caused even more severe damage to his spine.

Janet Kraft said hospital employees knew exactly what they were doing, and gave the family support, as well as the victim.

"What an incredible place that was," she said. "The people were awesome."

During a six-hour surgery at NorthEast, physicians took out the fifth and sixth vertebrae, put in bone from a bone bank and put titanium bolts in Kraft's neck.

But after 10 days in the hospital, Kraft was still paralyzed from the neck down, able only to slightly move his fingers and toes.

In the coming year, the Kraft's would meet many people in the medical field during Tom Kraft's recovery.

A stint in a rehabilitation center in Charlotte did nothing to help, and so in January of this year, Kraft and his wife made the decision to transfer him to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Ga., even though it was far away.

It ended up being a very good move, the Kraft's said. Mr. Kraft was almost instantly on the road to recovery, and Mrs. Kraft made as many trips to Atlanta as possible with two teen-age boys and her job as an elementary school counselor.

Eventually, the rehab center moved Mr. Kraft into an apartment, where he and his wife were taught how to take care of a spinal injury patient.

Not long afterwards, Kraft was asked to take part in a new research group that used rigorous body weight supported treadmill training, and once again, Kraft came a long way.

"It strengthened me so much," he said.

With determination and sometimes pure grit, Kraft learned to walk all over again.

Now, one year after his accident, Kraft is able to take small, slow steps with a cane or crutches. He is able to go to church or out to eat, and he recently obtained his driver's license after going through a special assessment.

Kraft is now a patient at NorthEast Outpatient Rehab Services, and is coming even farther every day.

Though the Kraft's have Christmas lights up again this year, Tom Kraft's goal is to put his up next year. But he has learned his lesson, knowing that if he had anchored his ladder, it wouldn't have slipped.

"We're not telling people not to put up lights or don't use a ladder," Janet Kraft said. "We're just telling them to do it safely."

In the meantime, with the approval of NorthEast Medical Center, Janet Kraft said she is trying to start a support group for families and care givers of people with brain or spinal injuries.

The hospital has offered meeting space and educational programming for such a support group, and Kraft knows from her own experiences that one could be very beneficial for families.

For more information, call Janet Kraft at 704-795-6245.


• Barbara Jones can be reached at bjones@independenttribune.com or at 704-789-9140.

This story can be found at: http://www.independenttribune.com/news/MGBO5B7FQ9D.html



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