Injury threatens athlete's future
When Thomas Dillard ran onto the Ole Miss baseball field for the first time, his mother, Kris, couldn’t help but cry. It was a moment the whole family had dreamed about for years, but one that was almost ripped away.
“We cried pretty good that day. This might not have happened. He might not have been here,” Kris said. “We were so proud that he was getting to live out his dream.”
Three years before, Thomas took a hard hit during a summer football scrimmage. The injury threatened his dreams and his life. When his doctors in Mississippi ran out of options, the Dillard family leaned on Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital.
All sports all the time
Thomas, now 21, was practically born playing sports, his parents joke. From an early age, his parents noticed a natural ability. His hand eye coordination was far better than his sisters,’ who are eight and ten years older.
“His sisters played sports, but with him it was an obsession. As small as I can remember, he was hitting a ball. He’d get up in the morning and turn on ESPN,” Kris said.
Thomas excelled at golf, soccer, football and basketball, but baseball was always his first love. As a freshman in high school, Ole Miss offered him a scholarship. It was a dream come true for the family deeply connected to the University of Mississippi. Thomas’ grandfather played football there, and his sisters both graduated from the university.
The summer before 10th grade was filled with sports — baseball tournaments and football practices. Thomas was thriving.
But, everything came to a halt one Monday afternoon when Tom Dillard got a call from his son. Thomas, 16, was hit by another player during a football scrimmage. He thought he broke his rib. One of the coaches drove him to the hospital in Greenwood, Miss., where Tom met them. When his son collapsed on the floor, Tom knew it was bad.
“I could tell he was in a lot of pain. He has a high threshold for pain. He’s the toughest human I know. I knew it was more than a broken rib,” Tom said.
Within 45 minutes, Thomas was in surgery. The doctor prepared the family for the worst – Thomas was bleeding internally. He was in pretty bad shape. He might not make it through surgery. Tom called Kris who was already on her way to the hospital, but eight hours away.
“I sat in the backseat of the car and filled up the floorboard with Kleenex,” Kris said. “It was such an overwhelming feeling of helplessness. I was in despair. It was probably the darkest day of my life.”
Thomas made it through surgery, but he had a long road ahead of him. The accident tore his small intestine close to his pancreas, and the surgery left him with a nine-inch incision. When Kris walked in the room, Thomas immediately said, “I don’t get to play football anymore.”
“I looked at him and said ‘Honey, I don’t care if you never play another sport again as long as you’re alive,’” Kris said.
After two weeks in the hospital, Thomas went home, but he wasn’t getting better. He struggled to eat.
One night as Kris was helping Thomas out of bed, she found his sheets covered in blood. His wound had opened. After three emergency room visits without answers, the Dillards made the decision to move Thomas to Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital.
“We thought something’s not right. We need a specialist to help us figure this out,” Kris said. “We made one phone call and within an hour, Le Bonheur was there.”
Pedi-Flite, Le Bonheur’s emergency transport service, arrived by ambulance to make the two-hour drive to Memphis. Le Bonheur is the only Level 1 pediatric trauma program in the Mid-South. This designation by the American College of Surgeons means Le Bonheur is prepared for even the most catastrophic traumatic injuries – from car accidents to sports injuries. Each year, more than 1,200 kids like Thomas are transferred to Le Bonheur for a higher level of care than their local hospitals could provide.
Road to recovery
Immediately, Kris knew they made the right decision.
“There was a room full of doctors and nurses waiting to start diagnosing him and help us figure out what was wrong with him,” Kris said. “We knew we were in the right place and that God was present. His hand was guiding us to Le Bonheur. It was such a relief to be there.”
One of the people waiting in the room was Le Bonheur’s Sugeon-in-Chief, Trey Eubanks, MD.
“I remember how ill Thomas was when we first saw him,” Eubanks said. “I was very concerned that he could easily get worse, requiring emergent surgery.”
The team focused on helping Thomas’ wound heal and his body fight the severe pancreatitis that developed after the injury. Thomas needed to rest. He had a tube that ran through his nose to his stomach and a line for hydration. The worst part was not being able to eat or swallow for two weeks. He lost 33 pounds.
“It was a difficult time,” Thomas said. “I’ve been an athletic person, and I love to get outside. Being cramped up in a bed all day and not mobile was really hard.”
Thomas made an impression on his care team. Eubanks said, “Thomas was such a polite gentleman despite going through such a serious illness. He never really complained or even seemed down about his condition despite having been sick for over a month by the time of discharge.”
Thomas remembers walking the halls of the hospital with his nurses to gain strength back.
“I was probably difficult to deal with because I was frustrated with the whole situation. But, the medical team was willing to do whatever it took to help me get better. They were the happiest people,” he said.
Thomas remembers one bright spot in particular – when the therapy dogs visited his room.
“It changed my day when those dogs came and sat with me. It made me a lot happier person,” Thomas said.
Tom and Kris say they appreciate how committed the hospital staff was to getting Thomas back on the field.
“The people at Le Bonheur are wonderful. They work so hard to make sure you and your child have everything you need,” Kris said. “Dr. Eubanks was so good to us. He was so intent on Thomas being well again so he could be a baseball player. He knew how important that was to Thomas.”
Thomas missed the first few weeks of his sophomore year and playing as the starting quarterback on the football team. When Eubanks cleared him to play, Thomas started playing catcher with a specially made shield to cover his scar. Slowly but surely, Thomas regained his strength.
Seeing Thomas run onto the field for that first Ole Miss game in 2017 evoked a lot of emotions for the
Dillards. The injury changed things for them. Tom, Kris and Thomas all were reminded that life is short, but also how God continues to prove his faithfulness and mercy. Looking back, Thomas says he’s grateful for the experience that came from his injury.
“To see our son run out on the field after so much adversity the last few years …” Tom said. “It was a very proud moment.”