When Theo St. Francis is in a kayak or sitting at a table you would never know he’s endured a spinal cord injury accident – and that’s just how he likes it.
“I want people to see the regular person more than the injured and recovering side,” he said. His goal is to overcome his physical challenges and resume his studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology without being dependent on a wheelchair.
Just three years ago, St. Francis’s goals were entirely different.
It was in 2013, during a pre-orientation program in ocean engineering, just as he was about to begin his freshman year at MIT that St. Francis broke his C6 vertebra when he dove into the bay and hit something that will be forever unknown. He washed ashore “like a beached whale” and told the lifeguards who rushed to him to call 911.
He immediately underwent surgery at Massachusetts General to fuse his vertebrae and prevent further damage, followed by weeks of rehabilitation at Spaulding Rehab near Boston and another month and a half at the Shepard Center in Atlanta, where he relearned basic things, like how to brush his teeth. His parents, Ray and Susan, and brother Adrian were with him in Boston at the time of the accident. They had hoped to share the joy of Theo starting out at his dream school, where he qualified not only academically but as a nationally-recognized competitor in the 200-meter backstroke, and was recruited to the swim team.
When he returned home to Sonoma, his wheelchair was delivered on Dec. 23. It was not quite the present he was hoping for on his 19th birthday.
St. Francis focused on the fact that there was no brain injury – and set his brilliant mind toward devising a plan for his comeback.
Paralyzed from the chest down, with movement in his shoulders and arms but no fine motor ability in his fingers, St. Francis refused to accept what the doctors told him – that he would never walk again.
Last December he turned 21 and was able to sit up straight on a barstool when his buddies took him out to celebrate. Yes, he uses a manual wheelchair, but he is out of it much of the day, engaging in intense physical therapy.
“I prefer to spend as little time in the wheelchair as possible, because it is not the best for my posture and body mechanics and, as a mental aspect in particular, I want to be in an environment that aligns with what my goals are.”
St. Francis can now drive an adapted car, ride on a tandem bike with someone else peddling, surf prone on a surfboard and kayak.
And since “begging” his therapists only weeks after surgery to allow him back in the pool, he now swims once a week, preferring open water in the summer months. He uses floats on his hips and knees for stability and propels himself with his longtime favorite, the backstroke. In January, he spent several days skiing at Lake Tahoe with the help of Achieve Tahoe, sitting on a bi-ski and tethered to an expert to keep him out of the trees and help with deceleration. The rest of the ride was all his doing, and he was elated. “Tearing it up in the beautiful Sierra’s was a terrific way to ring in the New Year,” said St. Francis.