It was the family’s first trip to Myrtle Beach – a get-away everyone had long anticipated – and they left around midnight so they could get to South Carolina by late morning.
But 4 ½ hours later – driving through the darkness on the West Virginia Turnpike outside Beckley – Damien Paul was at the wheel of the crowded white Dodge Neon and he was getting weary.
The former Fairborn High School football star and powerlifting champ who’d been one of the most highly recruited linemen in the state and had become a 330-pound tackle for the Cincinnati Bearcats was trying to fight off sleep by listening to the radio and some conversation from his younger brother Adam who was still awake in the backseat.
Then it happened.
“You know how you’re tired, but you don’t realize just how much?” he said as he sat in his Harshmanville Road home the other day. “Well, I just drove too far.
“I was about 10 miles outside of Beckley and had the cruise control set at about 70. There was a little meander in the road and I happened to doze off right at that snap second.
“We hit an embankment and the car went airborne and flipped four times, then skidded about 100 feet and ended up wheels-side down.”
Damien had been partially ejected during the crash and with each violent roll had taken the brunt of the impact and was severely injured.
Sitting behind him in the back seat, his younger sister, Mandy, had been knocked unconscious. His mom, Gina Thomas, who was sitting next to the rear passenger door, had suffered a broken collarbone. Adam and a former step dad, who was sitting up front, were unhurt.
“I got out through the back window, ran up to the road and tried to flag people down,” recalled Adam, who was then 14. “Everybody was slowing down, but nobody would stop.”
He ran back to the car and pulled Mandy out through the window. In the meantime, Gina managed to get out, grab a pillow and come around to Damien, who was still conscious, but pinned by the wreckage.
“My collarbone hurt so bad I could hardly breathe, but all I could think about was Damien,” she said. “I propped up his head and tried to comfort him. I didn’t know how bad it was, I couldn’t see the side of his face, so I just kept trying to talk to him and until help arrived.”
Damien was the second oldest of her five children and she said they’d had a special bond since he was born. She said there was just a “kindness” to him that you couldn’t help but like.
“I was a Mama’s Boy,” he admitted.
When Gina and her first husband, a former Marine, divorced she said Damien, then a young teen, tried to step up and look out for her and help take care of the younger children.
Later, when Damien was a towering All-Western Ohio League (WOL) offensive and defensive tackle for the Skyhawks, Gina was in the stands every game with Adam and Mandy, cheering for him.
Now, in a vacation-turned-nightmare, she was doing what she could to ease his pain and fear.
And that’s when he told her: “Mom, I can’t feel my legs.”
Looking back at that surreal night 18 years ago, Gina suddenly remembered an incongruity amidst all that wreckage and chaos:
“Through it all that stupid car radio just kept playing. It would not shut off.”
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, a volunteer firefighter pulled over in the darkness and helped initiate the rescue.
Cut from the vehicle by the Jaws of Life, Damien was rushed to the small hospital in nearby Princeton.
Although terribly injured, he still cared about others first said Adam:
“I remember him being wheeled to the emergency room and he’s saying, ‘I’m sorry…I’m so sorry.’”
Within a few hours, he was airlifted to a bigger hospital in Charleston and that’s where the family learned of the severity of his situation. The left side of his head had been “peeled back” by the impacts and would require extensive surgery. Still, he would lose his left ear.
Worse was the damage to his spinal cord.
“The doctor told me I was paralyzed and likely wouldn’t walk again,” Damien said.
Gina, though, was just glad he was alive:
“It’s a miracle he lived,” she said quietly. “It’s a miracle all of us survived.
“I don’t know how that happened. The only thing I’ve thought of was that my mom passed the year before and I think that night she came down and helped us.”
And Gina didn’t take such fortune for granted. The day after the accident, she set the tone for what was to come:
“I came into the hospital and said, ‘Damien, here we go. We’re going to tackle this. From this moment on, we don’t look back, we don’t turn back. We just kept on moving forward.’”
Long road back
Damien weighed 9 pounds, 9 ounces when he was born at the Marine Corps base at Quantico, Va. and he grew quickly after that.
“When I took him back for his six-week check-up, the doctor told me if he kept up like he was, he was going to be 7-feet tall,” Gina said. “By the time he was two, he was as tall as a first grader.”
In high school, Damien – then 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds – was making a name for himself as an athlete. He won a national power lifting title and was being heavily recruited in football.
He said he eventually narrowed his choices to Ole Miss, Ohio State and Cincinnati and went with the Rick Minter-coached Bearcats after OSU went in another direction.
With Jason Fabini – who would end up in the UC Hall of Fame and play 11 years in the NFL – playing left tackle for the Bearcats in 1997, Damien was initially redshirted. The following season injuries and diabetes slowed him some and he then he took a year off.
Any thought of returning to football was crushed in the wreckage that June night in 2000.
Right after the accident, Gina said they found out that Damien’s birth father had dropped him from his insurance coverage. That’s when Sam’s Club in Beavercreek – where Gina has worked for 23 years driving a forklift in the receiving department – stepped in.
“Sara Houser, our general manager took care of the medical flight to get Damien from Charleston to Miami Valley Hospital,” Gina said. “And Sam’s did fundraisers all summer long to help us with the bills.
“I thank Sara every day for what she did for Damien and me. She was tremendous.”
As soon as he got to Miami Valley, Damien underwent emergency surgery.
“They told me basically my neck was crushed,” he said. “My spinal cord was swelling at a rapid rate and they had to remove two discs and fuse my C-3 vertebra to the C-7, I believe. They put a plate directly over them to stabilize them.
“But as soon as I got out of surgery both my lungs collapsed, pneumonia set in and I got a real bad infection. It was rough and basically they told mom it was 50-50 on me making it.”
Gina said a Catholic priest was brought in and gave him last rites.
“I was in intensive care on a ventilator for a month and a half,” Damien said. “Actually they thought because I was such a high level quad (quadriplegic) I might never get off of it.”
Damien – thanks to his grit and his family’s support – beat those odds.
He left the hospital breathing on his own, though still quite sick and unable to feed himself for almost a year.
Once home, he shared a bedroom with Adam who helped him with numerous medical procedures, including getting up in the night and pushing on his brother’s diaphragm to make him cough and clear his lungs.
Gina said Damien was finally able to get COBRA insurance and that has helped pay for an aide to care for him in the mornings.
The rest of the health duties he needs done during the day are handled by family members, including stepdad Roger Thomas, who is tasked with lifting him when he falls trying to transfer himself from his wheelchair to his bed.
The bulk of the care, though, is provided by Gina.
“The mom thing really kicked in with her on this,” Damien, who’s now 40, said with a grin. “I owe her a lot again this Mother’s Day.”
Gina laughed about that:
“I first became a mom when I was 17. I hadn’t planned to be a mom and didn’t know anything about it.”
As it turned out, she knew plenty when it came to Damien:
“We weren’t going to let him get depressed or give up. We were going to push him and help him get through this.”
It hasn’t been easy. There are continual health issues and even some things you’d never think about. A couple of years after the accident, doctors still were finding and removing pieces of road debris from his head.
Gina said the real credit in all this goes to her son:
“I wondered if he’d change after this and he did not. He didn’t complain. He just made the best of the situation.”
Sports helped he said.
A few months after the accident he was introduced to wheelchair rugby and eventually joined a team from Columbus. After a few years he returned to college, getting a degree at Wright State in environmental geoscience with an emphasis on geophysics. While there, he also competed in wheelchair track and swimming.
Although he said he applied several times for jobs in his field, he’s never gotten one.
He now thinks about one day returning to school and getting an education degree so he can teach and especially coach, maybe starting at the junior high level.
One place that has embraced him again is Sam’s Club in Beavercreek, where, for the past eight years, he’s worked as a greeter with an engaging way that is popular with many of the shoppers.
“Basically, I can dictate if they’re going to be in a good mood today or a bad one,” he said. “I want to get them smiling and happy.”
Like the “Six Million Dollar Man’
He said when he first started at Sam’s, some people who had known him before and cheered his bruising football efforts, shied away when they saw him in his wheelchair.
“Some were afraid to approach me,” he said. “They didn’t know what to say. So I tried to be the one to break the ice and let them know I was the same guy.”
He still was, as his brother described him, “a sweetheart of a guy who’d do anything for you.”
He still loved sports and still was tough as nails, albeit a bit “accident prone” his brother laughed.
And with that Adam told a few stories:
“He still likes to work out even though he doesn’t have a lot of muscles to work on. He was working on his biceps, doing single-arm, 80-pound curls, and since he can’t use his hands, he had the machine set up so he could use his arm like a lever.
“But that broke his arm right in half.”
Damien ended up with plate in his arm from the surgery.
The day before Adam’s wedding six years ago, Damien, who was the best man, hit a rock while working out in his chair down Harshmanville Road and was catapulted to the pavement face first.
He showed up at the wedding looking like he’d gone a couple of rounds with Mike Tyson.
Then a few years ago, Adam said his brother went into a convenience store next to the Heat Nightclub, bought some snacks and, as he prepared to drive away in his van, the clamp that holds his wheelchair in place let loose.
He rolled back in the van and the vehicle shot forward, right into the nightclub building.
“He broke his neck again at the same spot as before and they had to redo everything,” Adam said. “He got another plate this time.”
Damien now laughs about all the repair work he has endured:
“I’m like the Six Million Dollar Man. I’ve got more metal in my neck than I have bone in there. My body has some real hardware in it.”
And the comparisons to the fictional Colonel Steve Austin goes beyond just having bionic body parts. Like the TV hero, Damien is capable of a superhuman feat, as well.
Proof of that came at the Columbus Marathon a few years ago.
Although he’s unable to use his fingers, he can propel his wheelchair using the palm of his hand in what’s called a tenodesis grip.
He was going along at a steady pace until about Mile 20 when a runner tangled with him. Damien’s chair flipped and he was flung onto the roadway.
“I guess somebody put me back in my chair and I finished the race, though I don’t remember any of it really,” he said.
Adam and a friend saw him at the finish line:
“He was just kind of looking around and his face was all messed up. He kept repeating himself and was pretty confused. I said, ‘Damien, you need to go to the hospital.’”
He left the marathon in an ambulance.
“The next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital,” he said. “I had a real concussion.”
He soon had something else, too.
“They sent me my medal,” he grinned. “I had won my division!”