Keith Thompson and Sharon Malick, supervisor of rehab services at Immanuel.
Almost 19 years ago, an Omaha police officer was critically injured when a teen in a stolen car smashed into his cruiser. The officer was rushed to CHI Health Creighton University Medical Center (CUMC), which was then known as Saint Joseph Hospital. CUMC’s Level I Trauma Center was the designated trauma center that day and has been for countless other high-profile events through the years: the Von Maur shootings: the Seward bus crash in 2001, where three students and one adult died; the Millard South shootings in 2011, where a student killed the assistant principal and critically injured the principal; and the International Nutrition fire and explosion in early 2014, where two people died and 10 were injured. CUMC’s Level I Trauma Center remains ready to save lives 24/7.
It took almost an hour for rescuers using the Jaws of Life to extract Officer Keith Thompson from the wreckage. A 15-year-old had stolen a Jeep and T-boned Thompson’s cruiser, sending it spinning into a tree and trapping him.
He would remember nothing of the next four months: the ruptured aorta, his 20 days in a coma, the move to the CHI Health Rehabilitation Center at Immanuel and the realization that he had both a severe brain injury and a spinal cord injury. He was paralyzed from the waist down.
“The doctors gave me a less than five percent chance of making it,” he said. “People tell me, ‘God was looking out for you.’”
Sharon Malick, supervisor of rehabilitation services at Immanuel, was the lead physical therapist at the time and remembered his early therapy: “We gave him opportunities to strengthen his memory, comprehension and problem solving,” she said. As he improved, he became more active and able to strengthen his arm and trunk muscles – and learned how to roll over in bed, lie down, sit up, bathe and get in and out of a wheelchair.
“Keith did great as a patient, especially as his brain recovered and he could better understand what was going on and what he needed to do,” Malick said. “I cannot recall a time he felt sorry for himself.”
He progressed from inpatient therapy to outpatient. Then he started working out at the rehab center on his own every Monday, Wednesday and Friday – for the next 19 years!
“I set the record for consecutive workouts!” he smiled proudly. It wasn’t until he was hospitalized earlier this year with heart problems that his streak ended. The recent pericardial effusion, where too much fluid builds up around the heart, may be related to that crash so many years ago, he said. Left untreated, pericardial effusion can cause heart failure or death.
Once again, Thompson called himself lucky. And he went back to working out at Immanuel.
“I want to be doing something,” he said. “I have to do it. It helps me mentally and physically. I want to have my body ready when there’s a cure.”
He uses a Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) bike, which helps his legs with a cycling motion. The bike sends electrical impulses directly to his leg muscles to help them fire in the proper sequence to help the bike’s motor move the pedals.
“I’ve never seen anyone as consistent or committed as Keith,” said Malick. Being active helped his circulation, muscle tone and strength as well as his mental outlook. “Keith’s dedication to exercise and activity has always been amazing and inspiring to me because so many of us can easily lack the motivation to do it, citing obstacles such as ‘not having enough time,’” she said. “Yet it takes Keith probably five times as long as the rest of us to get out of bed, dress and get ready to go each day. Nevertheless, he has made this a consistent part of his routine for nearly two decades because it is so important to him. It makes my obstacles seem more like excuses!”
Through it all, Thompson remained a police officer. He answered calls for the Omaha Police Department Telephone Response Unit and now works on the information squad, doing felony traffic paperwork and subpoenas.
“When I first met Keith, he was skinny, not very alert, confused and minimally able to understand or communicate and he could not move without assistance,” Malick said. “Today he is muscular and fit, independent in his self-care and mobility, working and contributing to society and being a father to his boys. In spite of what he may have lost as a result of his accident, he has always been appreciative of what he still has and has repeatedly commented that things could always be worse.”
Keith Thompson and Sharon Malick were interviewed by KETV on June 7.
Watch the clip.