The last thing Chris Holcomb remembers from that early August evening drive on A1A near Vero Beach was blinding light. Forty- eight days later he awoke from an induced coma in the hospital a C-7 quadriplegic.
That was in 2004. A self-described “average guy” and divorced father of a 10-year old daughter, Holcomb, then 33, had just closed a big deal for Boca’s Global Telecom, where he worked. He’d been at it pretty hard, and the stress was taking its toll. He had decided, on doctor’s orders, to go to Vero to unwind for a long weekend. Unplug the phone, catch his breath.
He had just hit the road, en route to a hotel, when he saw the light—followed by compete and total darkness.
“Nobody hit me,” he says. “I don’t have any memory of the impact or the actual accident, but I went off the road, hit a palm tree and I was ejected through the windshield. The car flipped over the palm tree and then landed on top of me. They had to Traumahawk me from the site; I don’t even know how long I was there. Somebody saw some smoke and some lights in the bushes from the car, and that’s how they found me.”
When Holcomb came to in a hospital room, he couldn’t move or speak or breathe on his own.
“Immediately upon coming to the realization where I was and what was happening, I wanted to die,” he says. “I thought this isn’t fair to my family, this isn’t fair to me. When
I was in ICU and finally coming around, I asked my dad to just get this over with.”
For two-and-a-half years, Holcomb hovered someplace he can’t—or will not—describe now. He allows only that it was very dark, and all he wanted was for it to be over.
But then there was that Sunday when his sister and her boyfriend showed up and trundled him out of bed and into their car.
“They got me dressed and took me for a ride,” he says. “Little did I know they were taking me to Lake Worth High School to participate in a wheelchair rugby practice, which is known as Murderball. I didn’t know anything about the disabled population; I didn’t know anything abut adaptive sports.”
All Holcomb knew, he says, is that he had no life and he wanted to die.
“But everything changed that day,” he says. “I saw all of these guys having a great time; they were working. And it wasn’t just the game—I realized that these people had driven there; they had gotten themselves in and out of their cars. Some of those guys had children they had [fathered] post-injury—through marriage. At that very moment I had an epiphany; I held it together, but I had a breakdown when I got home. I felt so selfish, and I realized that, wow, I was getting ready to cause a life sentence for my family. That it wasn’t just all about me. The damage, the fallout [had I killed myself] would have been incredible.”
Holcomb traded in the motorized wheel- chair for a manual one; he started therapy and exercise, and he went back to work. He discovered Achilles International, an organization dedicated to getting people with physical challenges back in the game—literally.
“I now saw that there was life,” he says. “From that moment forward, I never used a transfer board, I went into a manual chair. I was 200 pounds, I am now 150.”
This summer, Holcomb, now 43, competed in the Boca Ballroom Battle; since 2008, he has completed 30 marathons and a triathlon.
The transformation of a bedridden quadriplegic to a man doing wheelies in a dance competition did not come easily. We asked Holcomb how he did it, and how he sees life these days.
What he does: “Achilles International (which encouraged him to do his first marathon in 2008) provides inclusion opportunities for all types of people with physical challenges. My job as regional director for the state of Florida is to oversee a pretty active seasonal race calendar. I try to recruit people with physical disabilities to give them an experience they would never even think possible: to complete a marathon.”
On paying it forward: “The rugby team saved my life, and I had an opportunity to do a marathon—and inspire others by my willingness to take it on. I wake up every day with the opportunity to change somebody else’s life. When I do so, it saves mine.”
Ongoing challenges: “Companionship, love, finding a partner. Humans are visual creatures; they don’t accept what they don’t understand. As an individual with a disability, I just hope and pray that my time will come.”
Advice to others who find their lives changed by a disability: “Get connected. Get involved. Pay special attention to your family because they are there to support you and to see you through your darkest hour. And get into the pipeline of recovery immediately.”
Biggest joys: “Helping others. I picture my life like Forrest Gump. I had this previous life, and now I am on a new journey. God gave me another chance at life. And now I’m taking on every challenge that I think I am capable of completing.”
“I wake up every day with the opportunity to change somebody’s life. ...[which] saves mine.”
For more stories on local heroes and leaders, pick up the September/October 2014 issue of Boca Raton magazine.