Keeping the faith after life-changing accident

When Thomas Peters was found floating face-down in the surf, it was unclear whether he would survive let alone walk again. Now, nearly four years after a fateful accident, the popular Catholic writer and speaker sees the many ways God is bringing good out of his trials.

Thomas Peters grew up in Southern California as the oldest of six children. His parents met while attending a gathering for friends who were fresh out of jail for being involved in a protest at an abortion clinic. It seems Peters was destined for a life of vociferously defending the Church’s teaching in the public square.

Peters was home-schooled in a community setting, graduating at the age of 15 and beginning college at 16. He has two graduate degrees in theology and has been pursuing his love of that field and politics in the nation’s hub of political activity, Washington, D.C.

Defending the Faith

In 2006, Peters started the blog “The American Papist,” which gained many followers and great notoriety, ultimately taking home a number of awards. He became known as insightful, incisive and eminently articulate — and for his ability to articulate a coherently Catholic position on issues pertaining to Catholics in the public square. In 2010, Peters and his blog joined the organization Catholic Vote, for which he has served as an adviser ever since.

Appearing in dozens of TV, radio and online media outlets to discuss the relationship between Catholicism and political activism, he became known as an outspoken and articulate voice on behalf of traditional virtues, particularly in regards to life, family and religious freedom.

Peters gained a certain amount of notoriety (even infamy, in some circles) for his work for the National Organization for Marriage. He was hired to help create a pro-marriage generation — to help shape what young people think about marriage. Supporters of gay marriage quickly saw Peters as an antagonist.

“When Natalie and I got married, we had security standing by in case they decided to show up and protest,” Peters told the U.K.’s Catholic Herald in 2014. “They were trying to find where we were getting married. And there were numerous threats to show up and say, ‘You don’t believe in our love; we don’t believe in yours.’”

Life-changing accident

Such threats have never deterred Thomas Peters. His resolve in the face of such animosity speaks volumes about his character. It is this character, this steely resolve, that has been on full display since the accident that would happen a mere three months after his wedding.

On July 16, 2013, Peters was on a work retreat in Maryland. Just before dinner, he announced he wanted to go swimming. He was absent for a suspiciously long time. He was found floating face-down in the surf.

“I have never felt God’s presence as much as I do since the accident. People will say that accidents like mine should call into question God’s mercy or even his existence. But for me, the fact that I survived my injury is the greatest evidence I have ever experienced of God’s mercy and providence.”   — Thomas Peters in a 2013 blog post

While he does not remember the accident, it was later determined that Peters had suffered a spinal-cord injury while swimming or diving. If not for a number of providential interventions, the damage may have been greater — even fatal.

The accident happened on one of only two days a year when a group of emergency medical technicians were gathered for training less than a mile away from the accident site. Furthermore, nearby was a field large enough for a rescue helicopter to land; and, finally, he was taken for treatment to the University of Maryland Medical Center’s Shock Trauma Center, which is often considered one of the best units of its kind in all of North America.

Peters spent months on a ventilator following the accident, as his lungs were left weakened by water intake.

It took six weeks before Peters was stable enough to be transferred to a rehabilitation center. During those six weeks, nurses and doctors fought against infections and severe damage to his lungs that resulted from the dirty water he had taken in. Dayslong surgeries, the fusing of vertebrae and many other measures were taken to save Peters’ life.

Once the rehabilitation process started, Thomas and Natalie dug in and have not stopped working.

“I have never felt God’s presence as much as I do since the accident,” Peters wrote in 2013. “People will say that accidents like mine should call into question God’s mercy or even his existence. But for me, the fact that I survived my injury is the greatest evidence I have ever experienced of God’s mercy and providence.”

As his recovery slowly progressed, Peters wrote a blog post that November — typing it by using one knuckle of his right pinky finger on a touchscreen. Although the majority of individuals with injuries like his never walk again, and many don’t even regain use of their hands, that early victory was a sign of the miraculous recovery that was to come.

ski
Peters went adaptive skiing in February. Courtesy photo

‘Incredible grace’

One of the primary forces in Peters’ recovery has been his wife, Natalie. Even with their having been married only a matter of months when the accident occurred, this great test has merely strengthened their bond.

“Living with a severe handicap is a great, daily hardship — but also a potential source of incredible grace,” Peters said. “Love is the only thing that can get you through an accident like this, and I am grateful for my wife’s amazing love.”

During his time in the intensive care unit, Peters almost constantly was surrounded by family and friends, but there was one who never left his side. Natalie was unfailingly steadfast. “No one was more faithful,” he said.

Peters said he has encountered a number of people who are astounded that he and Natalie survived the trauma of this event, especially having been married so briefly when it began.

“The accident has taught me more about the incredible gift of marriage,” he wrote. “I tell them it helps to marry the right woman and get married the right way, the way the Church taught the two of us what marriage is and why it should be honored.”

Moving forward

Some observers have noted that Peters has kept a low profile during his recovery. There have been few updates, and on Jan. 16 of this year, he published his first post at Catholic Vote in almost two years.

“My wife and I are enormously grateful for the prayers and sacrifices so many have offered on our behalf,” Peters said. “It is quite overwhelming, honestly, and even if we are somewhat shy to share every aspect of this journey we are on, please rest assured we are praying for all of you as well!”

One recent update coming from Thomas and Natalie was on the Facebook page for the Kennedy Krieger Institute, an organization based in Baltimore that aims to improve the lives of those with disabilities (including spinal-cord injuries). In a video posted Feb. 8, Thomas and Natalie describe their experience going skiing — a remarkable anecdote considering the injury and prognosis Thomas faced only a few years ago.

This was a form of adaptive skiing, but that didn’t slow Thomas down. “It was just amazing,” he said in the video. “I was going just as fast or faster than I remember ever going when I would ski before.”

“I am grateful for my miraculous recovery,” Peters said. “My wife and I are enjoying the ability to travel more, and I have set as a goal making more time for adaptive sports.”

In the past year, Peters has done adaptive sailing, hand cycling and skiing. “I am looking forward to trying kayaking and maybe, someday, scuba.”

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Peters said that while he requires a wheelchair for his day to day, he continues to work toward walking again and plans on doing another physical rehabilitation stint this spring.

It would be all too easy for Thomas and Natalie to fold in the face of this ordeal. But their spirits remain high, and they strive to recognize the role of providence.

“I am daily reminded that life is God’s great gift, and the privilege of being able to live one more day is something I no longer take for granted like I used to before my injury,” Peters said.

“You read and hear the Gospels differently and more powerfully when you are awaiting and praying for God’s healing. God’s promises to bind every wound and make the lame walk again are incredibly consoling. God knows how much you need his grace, and that’s wonderful to meditate upon.”

Paul Senz writes from Oregon.