KU fraternity takes action to support paralyzed freshman member

Upcoming philanthropy event raising money for scholarships to help KU students with disabilities pay for caregivers

Fifty members of Kansas University's Beta Theta Pi fraternity took an overnight bus ride to Evergreen, Colo., where they initiated freshman Tom Babb in a special ceremony Feb. 20, 2016. The rest of Babb's pledge class had been initiated Feb. 7 in Lawrence, but Babb could not be there. While on a family vacation in Hawaii over winter break, Babb was paralyzed in an accident and hospitalized more than three months following.

After pledge Tom Babb was paralyzed in an accident over winter break, his fraternity took an overnight bus ride to Colorado to initiate him.

Since then, fellow Kansas University Beta Theta Pi members have been making plans to ensure Babb, who hopes to return to KU in the fall, will have the accessibility and caregiving help he needs to navigate the university as a quadriplegic, 600 miles from his family and home in Evergreen, Colo.

“We are committed to doing everything in our power to ensure that no matter what his condition is, he will be able to come back here and live as normal a life as possible,” said Beta vice president external Joe Simmons, a junior from Mission Hills.

So far, in addition to the initiation trip, that has included planning renovations to the Beta chapter house at 1425 Tennessee St. and organizing a 5k run set for April 24 that, as of Friday, had registered nearly 500 participants and raised roughly $30,000.

Proceeds from the “TomSTRONG 5k Run/Walk/Roll” aren’t going directly to Babb, however.

After conversations with KU’s Academic Achievement and Access Center, the fraternity and Babb’s family decided to create a fund that could potentially help Babb and other students like him with serious physical disabilities.

The newly established Tom Babb Student Accessibility Scholarship fund will provide scholarships to KU students with physical disabilities who require full-time care from a professional caregiver, according to KU Endowment representatives.

The Academic Achievement and Access Center helps students with disabilities get where they need to go on campus — Jay Lift transportation service is one example — but paying for personal needs such as a caregiver has always fallen to the student, center director Andrew Shoemaker said. The new fund could help students cover some of those burdensome costs.

“I was thrilled,” Shoemaker said of being contacted about the new fund, “but I was more thrilled that the fraternity has kind of rallied and taken a really hard look at what students in Tom’s situation may be facing upon returning to campus.”

Babb has been making progress, according to friends and family.

The idea of returning to KU is many steps beyond the days following the accident, when Babb could not even breathe on his own.

‘I knew I was paralyzed’

On Dec. 27, while on vacation with his family in Hawaii, Babb was jumping into waves in the ocean as he’d been doing all morning, but something — possibly a wave pushing him down, though he’s not exactly sure — went wrong.

“I instantly hit the ground and then my whole body went numb,” he said, in a video shared on tomstrong5k.org. “I can’t feel anything, I knew I was paralyzed right away.”

According to his sister, Claire Babb, who’s been sharing updates on a blog, she and their mother and brother had just headed back onto the beach to get their dad for lunch.

“When we turned around, his limp body was being tossed ashore by the waves,” she said. “In a blur, people jumped up and helped us get him out of the water. By the grace of God, there were doctors all over the beach that immediately came to the rescue.”

Paramedics rushed Tom Babb to a hospital in Maui, which was 45 minutes away, his sister said. Two days later he was flown to Oahu, where he underwent a seven-hour surgery but remained on a ventilator, unable to breathe on his own, or talk.

Doctors told Babb he would never breathe on his own again, his sister said.

In mid-January Babb was flown back to Colorado, where he was admitted to Craig Hospital in Englewood, which specializes in rehabilitation for patients with spinal cord injury. By the end of the month he was off the ventilator, breathing on his own, able to speak again and maneuvering a wheelchair using sip-and-puff controls.

After months of intense daily therapy, Babb was scheduled to leave Craig and return home to his family’s house in Evergreen this month.

Babb’s mother, Christa Babb, said in the video that their family had made a decision to stick together, step up, and do what they needed to do for Tom.

“You don’t have a choice, you just have to choose to go forward,” she said. “I’m in a zone right now, and I know the zone is going to be forever, but it’s going to get better.”

A happy day

The rest of Babb’s pledge class was initiated Feb. 7 in Lawrence.

Since the accident they’d been talking about not whether, but how, they would initiate Babb, said Will DeVries, a Wichita freshman and the pledge class president. DeVries said he figured they would pile into “a bunch of cars” and caravan, but generous alumni chartered the bus that carried about half the chapter’s members to Colorado on Feb. 20 for Babb’s remote initiation.

DeVries had driven out to visit Babb once before the initiation trip. He and a couple other pledge brothers watched the KU-Kentucky basketball game with him at Craig.

Despite seeing pictures first, DeVries said it was “shocking” to see his friend injured, with no feeling from the neck down and enduring such intense daily therapies — repositioning his chair every 15 minutes, hooking electrodes to his legs, being put on a bike simulator, only eating food in small pieces.

Until the initiation trip, not many of the other members fully comprehended the gravity of what Babb was going through, DeVries said.

“When he rolled up it increased the realness factor,” DeVries said. “That’s when everyone really understood the intensity of the situation.”

Limbs aside, Babb was his usual “no filter” self, saying whatever came to his mind, DeVries said. “The only thing he can do right now is talk, so he takes full advantage of that.”

And there was his smile.

“His face just lit up,” DeVries said. “It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced.”

Simmons said the same.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever felt anything quite like that,” he said. “Going through what he did and just seeing the sheer joy on his face — it was astonishing, and it was very uplifting.”

Looking ahead

Babb said in the video that he’s appreciated the encouragement he’s gotten via letters and social media.

Likewise, family members, friends and even strangers have said they are inspired by his determination.

Whether Babb will actually be able to live in the Beta house is a “complex” issue, Simmons said, and ultimately that decision will be up to him, his family and his doctors.

At minimum, the chapter hopes to widen doorways and make some other modifications that would allow him to come and go in his motorized wheelchair, Simmons said. Simmons added that he’s been told, incidentally, the wheelchair is powerful enough to make it up the 14th Street hill.

Babb has regained some limited movement in his arms, said DeVries, who visited again over spring break. DeVries said Babb and his family plan to travel to Lawrence for next week’s 5k.

“He’s really made a lot, lot, lot of progress since the very beginning … it makes me very hopeful for the future,” DeVries said. “Regardless of whether or not he lives in the house next year, I have a feeling that he’s going to be there very, very often.”

If you go

The TomSTRONG 5k Run/Walk/Roll is scheduled to start at 9 a.m. April 24 at Memorial Stadium on the Kansas University campus.

For more information or to register, go online to tomstrong5k.org.

The event, planned by KU’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity, is inspired by freshman member Tom Babb. Babb was paralyzed in an accident over winter break while vacationing with family in Hawaii. He was hospitalized more than three months following but hopes to return to KU for the fall 2016 semester.

The fraternity and Babb’s family have decided to donate race proceeds to a newly created KU Endowment fund: the Tom Babb Student Accessibility Scholarship. The fund will provide scholarships to KU students with physical disabilities who require full-time care from a professional caregiver.