On April 12, 2014, Jacob Smith was returning home with other students at his high school in Whitehouse, Texas, after attending a leadership conference in Corpus Christi for members of Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA). The last thing he remembers was buying snacks when the four-car caravan of students and teachers stopped at a service station along the way.
“I don’t remember the crash,” Smith says. “I know I was in the back behind the driver’s seat, and later learned that the three cars ahead of us swerved to avoid a distracted driver on the wrong side of the road. We were the last car, and we were hit head on.”
Smith sustained spine, facial and traumatic brain injuries and was transported by Memorial Hermann Life Flight® to the Red Duke Trauma Institute at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, formerly known as Texas Trauma Institute at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, where he had emergency surgery for a fracture in his lumbar spine and later underwent facial reconstruction. After a month at the acute care hospital, he was transferred to TIRR Memorial Hermann, where physiatrist Cindy B. Ivanhoe, MD, directed his care. An attending physician in the Brain Injury and Stroke Program, Dr. Ivanhoe is an associate professor in the department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Baylor College of Medicine and an adjunct associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).
“My experience at TIRR was the best ever,” Smith says, “even though I had many emotional days when I realized I would not be able to go back to school to finish my junior year. I woke up every day and did something new that my therapists had planned based on my interests. I couldn’t do many of the things I could do before the accident – for instance, I could no longer multitask – but they taught me never to give up. They encouraged me by talking about high school and my goals. They were professional and also very personal. They were like my family, and their encouragement made me determined to succeed.”
At the time of the accident Smith was a state officer for the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA), a national organization focused on personal growth, leadership development and career preparation for students in family and consumer sciences education. At the conference that morning, he had been elected a national officer candidate.
“I was supposed to be going to the national conference,” he says. “If elected, I’d be a national officer for more than 150,000 youth across the country. I would serve with nine other officers, wearing red jackets. The first thing I said when I woke up after the accident was ‘Where is my red jacket?’ So during my time at TIRR one of the things we focused on was getting that red jacket.”
By July of 2014, Smith had been discharged from the rehabilitation hospital and attended the FCCLA’s national conference in San Antonio. “I drove there with my parents. I was walking but I wore a back brace and had some other issues that were not noticeable,” he says. “Based on my knowledge of the organization and my professionalism, I ended up making national officer. One of our issues is traffic safety, which is very close to my heart.”
Smith returned to high school in August with accommodations, took extra courses and graduated in 2015 with his class. He served as a national FCCLA officer from July 2014 to July 2015 and was among those invited to the White House to meet First Lady Michelle Obama. After introducing her, he shared his story to inspire others to stay focused on reaching their goals in higher education regardless of their circumstances.
After completing his term as a national officer, he was elected to serve on the FCCLA’s national board of directors. Today, he travels around the country speaking to youth about traffic safety and the importance of setting and accomplishing goals.
Smith recently completed his freshman year on a full scholarship at Johnson & Wales University in Denver, Colorado, where he was elected executive vice president of public relations for the Student Government Association. His goal is to become a national motivational speaker and ultimately, to work with the United Nations on traffic safety issues and public health with an international focus. Meanwhile, he continues his involvement with FCCLA and the National Organizations for Youth Safety, traveling frequently to attend conferences and speak to groups.
“TIRR is such a unique place,” he says. “I felt I was surrounded by people who cared about me. They wanted me to be someone even better than I was before, all of them, from my therapists to the secretary in my hall, to the people who brought my food every day. The experience changed my outlook.
“In high school I listened to so many motivational speakers,” he adds. “They would share their personal stories about overcoming this and that. The crash definitely affected me but TIRR taught me that what’s important is your attitude and how to turn what happened around to help other people. My attitude defines my future.”
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