Oh, Superman: Student narrowly avoids Reeve's fate

By Mythili Rao

When Christopher Reeve's thoroughbred balked at a jump in May 1995, the Superman actor was sent soaring skyward. Reeve's paralysis came just an instant later when the 42-year-old horseman landed on his head, fracturing his C1 and C2 vertebrae.

Three months ago, 17-year-old Thomas Finney had better luck.

"I broke that and many more, and I'm not paralyzed," says Finney.

However, the upper body of the rising Albemarle High School senior– who fractured his C1, C2, C3, C4, C6, and C7 vertebrae– is now encaged in a black metal halo brace affixed to his skull. Finney tells his story to caution teens who "might think they're invincible."

Finney left home for his job at a Crozet construction site April 15. Although he'd been out late the night before– and had slept only two hours– he was confident that he could safely make the 45-minute drive.

"There's definitely lots of teens out there who think they can go for days without stopping," he says.

But at 1:27pm Finney fell asleep behind the wheel of his mother's 1999 Toyota Tacoma. At the junction of Routes 250 and 240, he veered into the path of another car, flipping the truck four times.

Finney, who was not wearing a seat belt, flew out of the window, traveling 50 feet before landing head-first on the road's shoulder. A scar running along the top of Finney's skull and bits of gravel still lodged in the back of his head attest to the terrible tumble.

A Pegasus helicopter rushed Finney to the UVA Medical Center where a surgeon, boring four metal screws through the anesthetized patient's scalp, attached a supportive halo to Finney's forehead. The halo traction– balanced with 25-pound weights– would realign Finney's vertebrae.

Rehabilitation has been rocky. In his 12 days at UVA Medical Center, the 180-pound ice hockey player lost 35 pounds. On April 29, when his original drug therapies– which included steroids, aspirin, morphine, valium, and others– were replaced with Tylenol and Ibuprofen at Kluge Children's Rehabilitation Center, Finney woke up in agony.

"My head was on fire. I was in a lot of pain, and I just started yelling," he says. For nine days, Finney was agitated and delusional, according to medical reports.

Now stable, Finney, who plans to move to North Carolina to work as a carpenter after completing his senior year at home, is a little nervous about what will happen next.

"They've stretched my neck– but what happens when they put it back together? What if it just flops to the side?" he wonders.

The accident has made Finney wary of driving. The teen is in no hurry to get in a car, let alone sit in the driver's seat. But despite it all, he hesitates to acknowledge his mortality.

"I still think I am superman," he says.