Teacher’s accident reveals strong spirit
The articles in which several downvalley residents agreed to share their special stories during the holidays, will appear throughout the week.
Eagle Valley Middle School music teacher Tommy Dodge has something very basic to be thankful for this time of year: the fact he’s alive.
“Basically, every day when I wake up is Thanksgiving,” says Dodge.
For a few horrifying minutes on Nov. 1, 2002, Dodge’s chances of still being alive and healthy a year later looked dim. A malfunctioning cherry-picker device left the energetic, 27-year-old teacher dangling from the rafters of the school gym. Dodge had volunteered to go up in the cherry-picker to take down a disco ball that was serving as decoration for a school dance. When the machinery collapsed, he jumped, and was left hanging by his hands from the rafters, about three stories up from the hardwood gym floor.
“I did not think I was going to die. I actually thought that I would fall, then get up and go play volleyball. I think that helped me,” Dodge says.
Dodge estimates he hung onto the rafters for about five minutes. Somebody called 911; and although the fire station is located nearby, onlookers knew the response just couldn’t be quick enough. Fellow teacher Kasey Stanish frantically dragged mats from the stage area into the center of the room, under Dodge, to soften the impact of his inevitable fall.
Dodge says he had the presence of mind to plan how he was going to fall. He briefly considered wrapping his legs around the rafters, and waiting for the firefighters to arrive; but dismissed that idea, fearing he would fall and land on his head.
He also reasoned that he didn’t want to land feet first, because the jarring impact could damage his spine. Ultimately, Dodge concluded that his best choice was to try to land on his right hip.
He was about ready to let go when some of the kids who had just left the dance filtered back into the room. Dodge instructed Stanish to herd the kids back out, beyond seeing distance.
“I was concerned about the impacts to them if they saw me,” he says. He held on for a few moments longer. Then came the big moment.
“I didn’t actually fall. I jumped,” recalls Dodge. He can’t remember whether he kept his eyes open.
He landed as planned, but knew at the moment of impact that something was hurt. Dodge’s femur was fractured. Doctors at Vail Valley Medical Center put the leg back together with a big bolt, four screws and 27 staples.
The community rallied around the teacher, a Canadian who came to the local school district through the Visiting International Faculty program. The phone calls to the hospital and numerous bouquets of flowers prompted the medical staff to inquire if he were some sort of celebrity. Once home, fellow faculty members and parents of his students paid visits, brought him cooked meals and offered all kinds of help. They were there to help a much-loved teacher who was far from his home.
“I’ve seen it. There is something special about this town,” says Dodge.
Not surprisingly, the energetic teacher wasn’t good at staying home to recuperate and missed just one week of school. He wanted to return to his students. Eagle Valley High School Principal Jerry Santoro located a motorized wheelchair, equipped it with a little bicycle horn, and Dodge was set to return to the loves of his life: music and kids.
“We’re thankful he’s alive. He’s been wonderful with kids, and is a wonderful addition to the staff,” says Santoro. As a Visiting International Faculty teacher, Dodge is limited to a three-year stay in the United States.
“We’d like to extend that, if at all possible, when the time comes,” says Santoro.
The accident changed Dodge’s life. He went after his physical therapy program with a vengeance, and kept working out even past his official recovery. His weight dropped from 200 pounds to 140 pounds. He’s trim, and fit.
The teacher maintains that he’s not only physically tougher than he was before, he’s also mentally stronger.
“I know what a body can go through,” he says.”I don’t have any fear of dying now. I don’t have any fear of anything. If you asked me to go back up in that cherry picker again, I wouldn’t hesitate.”
This story first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.