KEYSTONE HEIGHTS – A country string band hums in the background as Deborah Thomas navigates through nets of people who stop her with a hug, a conversation and sometimes an affectionate hand on the …
MELROSE– A country string band hums in the background as Deborah Thompson navigates through nets of people who all stop her with a hug, a conversation and sometimes an affectionate hand on the shoulder.
Melrose’s Mossman Hall is filled to the brim with friends, community members and family for a potluck and silent auction benefitting Thompson.
Thompson, 58, limps on stage, looking fragile and simultaneously powerful. She briefly thanks the crowd and other artists for donating selling their work at the Dec. 9 fundraising event.
“It’s like half of northeast Florida is here,” she jokes, then begins to speak through tears.
Tonight, the crowd is gathered to help Thompson raise money for a wheelchair accessible vehicle by selling artwork created by Thompson and other local artists.
The crowd knows Thompson’ life hasn’t been an easy one, and, as some could argue, a fair one either. Thompson doesn’t see it like that, though. She appreciates her daily victories as only someone who had had nothing can.
Six years ago, in the early morning dark of Alaska as Thompson left for work at a nearby hospital, an attacker ambushed her.
“I got a glimpse of a face and I think that person was with me probably about 40 seconds,” Thompson said. “Forty seconds can change your life.”
The attacker stabbed her ten times, including near her left eye, her scalp and just below the neck where her spinal cord was partially severed. Paralyzed, she crumpled to the ground where she lost about one third of her blood.
While at Alaska Regional Hospital, she required three pints of blood and had to be intubated. Healing came slowly for her, she said.
She now lives with spastic hemiplegia, a condition that makes the muscles on the left side of her body are stiff and weak.
On day three of recovery, she had a dream she got up to use the restroom by herself and woke up excited.
“I woke up and there I was absolutely paralyzed and it took three people to roll me over and that stopped,” she said.
Thompson travelled the world on mission trips. She spent 18 months in Argentina, and traveled to India for spiritual retreats several times prior to the incident.
Homicide detectives commented on how lucky she was to be alive, and how in their 20-year careers she had only been the second victim they had ever spoken to.
Movement began to stir in her extremities.
“My left pinkie wiggled and that was great joy and then the next day my great toe on my left side moved just barely and the slowly slowly everything started coming back,” Thompson said.
She was able to lift her head soon after and see a mountain range through her hospital window.
“It was a thrill beyond measure,” she said.
She spent the next year in therapy, living with her brother, his wife and four children. Nearly six years later, she still suffers the effects of the assault.
Her friends and family helped pack up essentials and move her from Alaska with a car filled with boxes. She said she couldn’t stay in Alaska any longer after it happened.
She used the opportunity to visit every friend and family member she knew across the country before she finally settled in northeast Florida.
Friends boarded her in Melrose while she participated in a spinal cord injury study in Gainesville. Eventually, she could walk again, not run, she said, but “you should have seen me walk.”
She said she used $40,000 given to her from an Alaskan fund for victims of violent crimes to purchase a small house in Keystone Heights.
The community banded together to renovate her house pro bono, including handicap bars, a bathtub chair and an automatic lift.
Considering she was a registered nurse who was now disabled, she signed up for a vocational rehabilitation program housed in Gainesville that allowed her to study the arts and acquire a bachelor’s degree.
She began working as an artist in the community and witnessed some success in it, however, in August 2013 she fell and fractured her femur. Subsequently, doctors performed a partial hip replacement.
“My whole body got debilitated since the hip surgery,” Thompson said. “I can’t swim, I can’t dance.”
Her father passed away the month after the surgery, and on Nov. 2 her wheelchair accessible Jeep was stolen while she volunteered. When news reports came out about the theft, donations began to flow in.
“It was an amazing time,” she said. “By Friday of that week I felt like everything was going to be OK, that I would get a new car and everything would be OK, I just felt a spiritual magic.”
Currently, she doesn’t have enough to cover the costs of a new vehicle and to outfit the vehicle to make it wheelchair accessible, so she drives a mini-van. She says her vehicle is “about read to collapse.”
She’s still slowly working towards her goal of a new vehicle, however, one slow step at a time.
To donate to Deborah, visit www.helphopelive.org/campaign/11451, or contact her at Vehicle4Deborah@yahoo.com.