Head trauma survivor makes positive impact

Tom Roberts holds up a ceramic boat that he made at American River College. Roberts survived a traumatic brain injury in 1978. He has been enrolled at ARC every semester since 1989. He passed away on Oct. 22, 2016 of cancer. (Photo by Luis Gael Jimenez)

Tom Roberts holds up a ceramic boat that he made at American River College. Roberts survived a traumatic brain injury in 1978. He has been enrolled at ARC every semester since 1989. He passed away on Oct. 22, 2016 of cancer. (Photo by Luis Gael Jimenez)

Cheyenne Drury

A red Volkswagen van. That’s the color and model that he will never be able to get out of his head, during his weekly meeting at Traumatic and Acquired Brain Injury Support group every Wednesday at American River College.

Tom Roberts enrolled in ARC in the fall of 1978. Fresh out of the Navy and cultured from all of his travels, he planned on getting his Associate of Arts degree in business.

This all changed when the driver of a red Volkswagen van was traveling on the same road just as the sun was setting.

Roberts was riding his dirt bike home from college when he was hit by the man with the sun in his eyes. Most head trauma victims remember their accident and Roberts is no exception.

For 14 days Roberts remained in a coma and for six months, he said, “I just existed.”

When he finally woke up Roberts didn’t know what had happened but he remembers that he was  unable to speak.

The fact that Roberts survived the accident is a miracle in itself, but what it possibly even more impressive is that he has been attending ARC since he re-enrolled in 1989.

Roberts, “is a fixture here,” said Barb Westre, counselor for the Disabled Students Programs and Services.

The contrast between his life before and his life now is a stark one. Roberts grew up in Bogota, Columbia and lived there until he was about 10; he then moved to Miami, Florida where he attended a military academy.

He followed school by enlisting in the Navy when he was 19 and served from 1974-1978.

While he was in the Navy, Roberts worked on two aircraft carriers, the USSD Franklin Roosevelt and the USS Oriskany as a mechanic.

After he was discharged Roberts came directly to ARC and since his return,  his TABIS peers say he’s been a positive influence.

“Meeting Tom has made a huge difference in my life… there’s nobody in this group that makes as much as difference as Tom,” TABIS member Ben Uchytil said.

Uchytil, a former high school teacher with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, also suffered a blow to the head;a few years later his colon perforated and caused his body to start shutting down.

Because of his injury and illness, Uchytil said began to experience cognitive confusion. He is now back at ARC and on track to transfer to Sacramento State in fall 2017 where he will work toward getting his master’s degree in mathematics.

This ability to inspire so many people, including Uchytil, attests to the fact that Roberts has grown to accept his challenges in life with dignity and grace.

“I don’t think I could have the nerve to be doing what I’m doing now… to go and get my master’s if it weren’t for Tom,” Uchytil said.

Tod Winebarger, another TABIS member who was shot on accident by a friend when he was 12, said he admired Uchytil’s positive attitude.

“Yeah Tom is mean… throws clay at the teacher,” Winebarger joked.e quickly followed this joke with an appreciation, “Tom has a great personality… always positive with a smile even if he’s having a bad day. He’s always smiling.”

The severity of head trauma varies from person to person and can impair a person so badly that they have the attention span that lasts only minutes.

“My injuries aren’t nearly as severe as Tom’s, but he never preaches, never complains. I have learned from him not to focus on my disabilities,” Uchytil said.

Memories can be completely forgotten and for head trauma victims it can be very difficult and sometimes impossible to retain new ones.

In Robert’s case he is lucky. Not only has he made improvement with his memory but he has tools that help him to get through daily life.

“Tom is very good at making lists and remembering dates. It is amazing actually. I don’t know how he does it,” Westre said.

Even though Roberts ‘always has a smile on his face, he still has memory of the person he was before his accident.

“I think that’s one of the worst things: they remember how they used to be,” Westre said.

Some of the hardest things for Roberts have not only been the memory of his past self but also the memories he never got to create, the aspirations he never got to live out–like having a girlfriend.

“I want a girl,” Roberts said. Since his accident Roberts said that has been one of the hardest things for him to live without.

But beyond what he has to live without, there is also the discussion of what he has to live with.

Roberts has a difficult time speaking and he has almost no short term memory. He said he has a hard time “expressing words,’ and he can’t read the newspaper.

Yet even with all of his challenges, he tries to combat every negative with a positive.

“It’s a whole new story now… it has to be that way,” Roberts said.“You have to smile period… It’s hard, it’s complex… because of the situation I had to learn how to smile.”

His energy and enthusiasm is palpable to those who meet him;

at one point in the interview, for example, he began singing “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” by The Beatles.

Pearl Calhoun, another TABIS member, said.  “He’s always making us laugh…very kind, very loving, very caring. We’re just like family. You just want to be close to him.”