TOM BABB heads toward a marketing class in Haworth Hall on the campus of the University of Kansas after being dropped off by members of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity in Lawrence, Kansas.

TOM BABB heads toward a marketing class in Haworth Hall on the campus of the University of Kansas after being dropped off by members of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity in Lawrence, Kansas.


It’s lunchtime at the fraternity house. Guys with backpacks, crew socks and crew cuts greet the house mom, fill cups with blue Powerade, eat ham and cheese subs and mostly ignore the salad bar.

A blond-haired, green-eyed member in a red ball cap, Jayhawk sweatshirt and loafers — no socks — intercepts a freshman heading toward the dining room.

“Hey, are you eating right now?”

“Yeah, what’s up?” the freshman says.

“Do you mind feeding me?”

This is a daily ritual for Tom Babb.

And he’s not just heckling the freshman.

Babb, a sophomore from Evergreen, Colorado, had just finished his first semester as a Beta Theta Pi fraternity pledge at the University of Kansas when an accident left him paralyzed from the neck down. He spent the following spring and summer recovering in hospitals and at home with his parents.

Babb, determined to return to KU, did so in fall 2016 and is now finishing his first year navigating life as a quadriplegic in a fraternity house.

Babb’s father, an alumnus of the same fraternity at a different college, sees the brotherhood concept playing out in his son’s unusual circumstances.

“He wouldn’t have worked so hard to come back if there wasn’t something so strong and something he loves so much as the house,” Steve Babb said. “And he wouldn’t have been able to fulfill that dream if it wasn’t for the guys in the house welcoming him emotionally, physically and in every way.”

Every morning but Saturdays, a nursing assistant gets Tom Babb out of bed, bathes him, dresses him and puts him in his wheelchair.

Other than that, caring for Babb falls primarily to the 90 other men who live with him in the house.

His fraternity brothers — largely his roommates and closest friends, but really whoever’s around — feed him, pick things up for him, change his clothes, unhook his catheter, give him his meds, brush his teeth and put him in bed at night.

If he wants to go to the basement or upstairs, they transfer him to a lighter, non-motorized wheelchair that two or three of them can lift.

They walk with him to class, or drive him in his accessible van. There’s always someone with him when he goes out. They’ve taken him to the hospital a couple times when he’s had medical issues.

Babb can move his arms some, enough to drive his motorized wheelchair with a joystick and tap on his phone screen with one knuckle. Voice-activated technology helps him text, make calls and use his computer.

When Babb moved back to KU in August, his mother, Christa Babb, came with him, and stayed in town almost three months.

“I told him I would like to be out there for a semester. He said a month. I kind of compromised,” she said.

Among mom’s first orders of business: finding a primary care doctor, getting familiar with the local emergency room and contacting the fire department supervisor in charge of the Beta house’s district.

“I just thought, he’s helpless,” she said. “He can’t get himself out, so I wanted the fire chief to be aware.”

She doesn’t actually think it would come to that, but being 600 miles away, that’s comforting. Babb is capable, his fraternity brothers know how to care for him, and there are medical resources in town.

“It’s the best place for him — I wholeheartedly believe that — and I really wish he could live there for the rest of his life,” she said. “He has constant companionship. The boys have always come through.”

“I’m a college student, so I don’t really want to, like, feed someone, you know?” laughs Hank Deeter, a sophomore from Fort Collins, Colorado, and one of Babb’s good friends. “You have to be pretty mature about it.”

Happy to help

But fraternity members say they’re happy to help Babb. He’s not only their friend, he’s a fellow Beta, and that means something.

“No doubt it’s the brotherhood,” Babb said. “Even a guy I don’t talk to in the house that much, if I say, ‘Hey, dude, I need a ride, can you take me?’ He’ll drop whatever he’s doing.”

Babb is friendly, confident and not afraid to ask for help, though he tries to disperse requests so it doesn’t get “annoying,” especially for his roommates and go-to friends.

“There’s never been a time when I’ve been, like, overwhelmed with Babb needing help,” Deeter said.

Henry Killen, a sophomore from Winona, Minnesota, and one of Babb’s roommates this semester, agrees.

“Definitely not,” he said. “There’s enough guys.”

There is an exception — blackout-drunk Babb.

That was happening his first semester back.

“He was so excited to get back, and to a certain extent he was almost like a celebrity when he went out,” said Patrick Hullings, a sophomore from Wichita and one of Babb’s roommates in the fall. “He’d get people like, ‘Oh, Tom, let me buy you a drink,’ or, ‘Let me get you a beer’ — and he did not say no very much.”

That snowballed into scenes that were “pretty tough to deal with,” Hullings said. “Most people can stumble their way home. It’s just so unsafe to be operating a wheelchair, or have all the complications he has because of the accident … it’s just like you’re scared for him, and you’re scared for yourself.”

When Hullings tried to talk to Babb, he was resentful. But he started to realize the excessive drinking was negatively affecting others and dangerous for himself.

He’s not drinking that much — or, more accurately, letting people feed him that many drinks — anymore.

Babb does not have nothing to lose. He’s having a blast at KU and in the house.

“It would suck to see all that crumble just because of one bad night,” Hullings said. “Eventually, I think he kind of understood that.”

On the last day of spring classes, Babb hadn’t been to any of his in a week. Diagnosed with pneumonia, he’d spent most of the past few days in bed.

Being paralyzed is more complicated than just being unable to move.

Susceptibility to pneumonia is just one of the conditions that will be a lifelong problem for Babb, his mother said.

“I do worry about his health; that’s probably the No. 1 thing,” she said.

For the pneumonia, Babb has a device he calls his “cough machine.” His fraternity brothers hold the machine to his face, where it forces air in and sucks phlegm out of his lungs, several times a day when he’s sick.

He has a catheter in his stomach to drain urine from his bladder — another permanent fixture — that needs changing every two weeks.

The pre-med guys in the house do that for him, Babb said. He taught them how, he trusts them, and they kind of like doing it.

Connected to the catheter is what non-pre-med friends call his “piss bag.” That needs emptying a couple times a day, and his roommates or whoever’s handy takes care of it — no big deal.

The taking of pills

Babb also takes pills every day — a lot of them, for all kinds of things.

He has chronic nerve pain in his hands, he said. They always feel warm and uncomfortable, and sometimes the pain “spikes up.” He has muscular pain in his neck and shoulders from being in the same position all the time. He also gets phantom pains in his feet, which he can’t actually feel at all.

Babb said he’s built up a tolerance for the pain but has prescription painkillers when needed.

Only a handful of his friends have access to the safe where those are, Babb said, and they hold him accountable.

“If I’m, like, taking it two days in a row or something, they’ll be like, ‘Dude, you don’t need that.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, you’re right, I don’t need that,’” he said. “I’m surrounded by a lot of people who want to help.”

People don’t usually ask, but Babb knows they want to know, so he often volunteers the information.

What happened?

He was playing on the beach while on vacation with his family in Hawaii, a few days after Christmas in 2015.

He dove into a wave — took a running start and launched headfirst into an oncoming crest in the ocean. He’s not exactly sure what combination of water, wave force or sand caused the impact that hurt him. But he knew instantly he was paralyzed, he said.

After that, things were hazy for a long time.

Babb, who had broken his C5 vertebra, spent weeks hospitalized in Hawaii before he could be transferred home to Colorado, then to Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colorado, which specializes in spinal cord injuries.

Those weeks were not hazy for Christa Babb.

Early on, with a ventilator tube in his mouth and unable to move fingers or even nod his head, the only way Babb could communicate was through a letterboard — row by row, blinking to signal one letter at a time, spelling words, then two- or three-word sentences.

Three or four days after the accident, Babb asked when he could sign up for classes, his mother said.

“He was determined to go back,” she said. “There was no doubt he was going back to school — in his mind.”

“As parents, we were like, ‘Um, how about we just survive this?’”

Returning to college

Al Simmons, Beta alumni adviser and father of a current senior in the house, said it was “powerful” when he heard Babb, still in intensive care, was already saying he wanted to go back to KU.

Simmons wanted to be sure doctors and Babb’s family agreed it was OK for him to return to college, and that it was OK to move back into a place like the Beta house. Simmons told Babb’s father: “I can’t tell you how we’re going to do it, but … we’ll figure out a way to make it happen, once the green light is given.”

At that point, Babb was still a pledge.

A couple weeks after the traditional initiation ceremony in February in Lawrence, alumni donated money to charter a bus to Colorado, where about 50 Betas surprised Babb and initiated him there.

Beta members organized the first Tomstrong 5K in Babb’s honor in April 2016, raising nearly $50,000 in its first year for a scholarship to help other disabled students at KU.

Meanwhile, Simmons and other alumni began planning to make the house accessible for Babb.

The project dovetailed with some renovations they were doing anyway, Simmons said, and alumni donated extra money for the rest.

Over the summer, they renovated a first-floor room for Babb, including adding a fully accessible bathroom, and equipped most of the house’s exterior doors with sensors that open them automatically when Babb’s chair gets within about 5 feet.

Beyond the house’s physical accessibility, members stepped up.

“This is truly unusual,” Simmons said. “I think it does speak to the great things that can happen in a fraternity environment when guys truly do respect and care for each other. … Tom’s earned a Ph.D. in adapting skills, and the guys in the house are learning valuable life lessons every day.”

His first semester at KU, Babb loved the house, he loved KU and — his friends say — the girls loved him. He was having a blast and was probably the happiest he’d ever been.

He wanted it back.

Babb’s Instagram feed still has girls, theme parties and concerts. He usually goes out on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. He’s had dates for all the Beta parties this year. He’s doing better in school than he was before the accident.

He’s being personally mentored by KU Provost Neeli Bendapudi, and plans to work with her this summer on some projects related to his major in strategic communications and to help improve accessibility at KU.

“Not everyone who gets paralyzed gets all that support,” he said. “Obviously, I’d love to have my legs and stuff, but I’m definitely extremely happy.”

Outside the fraternity house, another weird — but good — thing has happened, Babb said.

People on campus talk to him who never would have before, like other people in wheelchairs, people with other disabilities, more minority students.

“Before that I was just a white frat kid who wore khakis and Sperry’s and a collared shirt and a backwards hat,” he said. He was friendly, but probably wouldn’t have gone out of his way to talk to all those people, just as they didn’t go out of their way to talk to him.

Babb said that’s given him new perspectives.

Babb’s fraternity brothers also are learning from him.

“You gain some perspective on the world,” Hullings, his former roommate, said. “Nothing like Tom’s, but I’d say you gain an appreciation for the little things. Being able to get yourself out of bed in the morning is a blessing. He’s choosing to thrive.”

After Babb’s injury, his family made a pact.

“We sat down after his accident as a family and said, ‘We have two options here. We can just let this destroy our family and our future, or we can pull together as a family and thrive,’” Christa Babb said. “We just pick up and try to move on and make the best of it we can. We want to make Tom’s life the best it can be.”

The more time went on and the more he saw or talked to his friends from KU, the more Babb wanted to go back.

“I’m just sitting around all day, and I’m not doing anything,” he said, of his months recovering in the hospital and at home in Colorado. “Here, I’m going to class and everything. You don’t have time to get sad.”

The motto for the Tomstrong 5K is “Choose to thrive.”

Babb spoke at his high school when he was home for spring break.

His message, he said, boiled down to “no excuses.”

“Bad stuff happens to everyone, and you can either dwell on the bad stuff or just choose to thrive and move on,” he said. “You can call that an excuse forever, or you can just say, ‘Let’s do it.’”

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