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Thomas Peters: ‘The course of my life has changed forever’

Using a free-standing exoskeleton, Thomas Peters can take hundreds of steps in each rehabilitation session

I was nervous about meeting Thomas Peters two years on. A lot had changed in the world, and in him. When we last met, he was an up-and-coming writer in his mid-20s – with a talent that made me green with envy. He was primarily known as the hugely successful Catholic blogger American Papist and as a spokesman for the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), a Washington-based group that defends marriage and faith communities that sustain it. He was smart, informed and the kind of person you could imagine calling “Senator” one day. In early 2012, he was about to marry his sweetheart, Natalie Zmuda. We sipped cocktails at the outdoor ice rink in Georgetown. And I slipped home drunk on the sheer potential of that couple.

Then, in mid-2013, I got a message to say that tragedy had struck. Thom was in a diving accident and had been flown to hospital. He was in a coma. Months later, Thom wrote a reflection describing the process of coming-to: “On a Friday in July I awoke in the early morning hours to someone beating on my back with their fists. I was lying on a bed in a place I did not recognise and I was in excruciating pain. It was a kind of pain I had never experienced before and did not understand. There was a tube down my throat and my body felt incomplete, as if much of it was missing. I came to realise in the hours that followed, the man beating on my back with his fists was a nurse, and he was trying to dislodge some of the fluid that was filling up my lungs as the result of the diving accident I had sustained three days previously, an accident that had fractured my fifth vertebra and had given me a severe spinal cord injury, an injury that has changed the course of my life forever.”

When I met Thom again, it was about a year after he had written this account. He was now 29 and confined to a wheelchair – maybe more of a man than the boy I once had cocktails with. But he was still drinking and, after a little red wine, I turned on my tape recorder and we discussed his extraordinary life.

Thom’s family is large (he’s the eldest of six) and thoroughly Catholic. His father’s faith was stirred back to life by Humanae Vitae in 1968 and he later became a canon law teacher and adviser to the Church. “My folks met at a gathering for friends who had been let out of jail for being involved in an abortion clinic protest,” explained Thom.

“I grew up thinking it was not abnormal to grow up with debates about Mormon baptism or Church documents being dinner table discussion.”

The kids were home-schooled in “a co-op commune” with other children, where his dad taught Latin. This kind of arrangement might seem odd to British readers, but the latest figures show that around 1.3 million children are home-schooled in the US. Parents’ reasons run from thinking that their local curriculum is dangerously Left wing to thinking it’s too battily Right wing. But it’s 100 per cent American to presume that parents are better at providing their child’s education than the state. In Thom’s case, he graduated at 15 and went to college at 16.

After college he pursued his twin passions of politics and theology in Washington DC. When he landed a job with NOM, he says he did not relish being so intimately involved in the marriage movement. “But I felt it was a sort of prophetic martyrdom that someone had to stand for marriage. And it was [certainly] a challenging situation.” Why? “The imbalance of money [the gay lobby had far more] and the necessity for being incredibly precise in how you talk about it – and the fact that so few were doing it. That said, I’ve never regretted a minute I’ve spent defending marriage, and it’s thrilling to me to see so many people still bravely and brilliantly defending marriage today.”

NOM were looking for “someone young to help create a pro-marriage generation, to be what they called ‘culture creators’ to shape what young people think”. In practice, that meant “going on TV and saying: ‘I’m under 30 and I believe in marriage and here’s why’.” Key to winning the debate was “understanding that there’s actually only a handful of arguments for gay marriage and if you can be asked questions and work out which category the question fits into, you can actually very easily cover it.”

The blowback was immediate: Thomas Peters became a hate figure. “When Natalie and I got married, we had security standing by in case they decided to show up and protest. 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.’ I have friends who somewhere had supported me and would be attacked. Their places of business would be attacked… Years after they’d been publicly associated with me.” His wife’s employers were informed online that they were “employing the wife of a bigot”.

Was all this pain worth it? Thom certainly insists that it was: to fight for a moral cause is a reward in itself. But when I met him two years ago, the cause looked winnable. Now, in my opinion, it is lost. When we last drank cocktails, North Carolina had voted overwhelmingly to ban gay marriage. But then the president went on television and said that he supported it. A few states legalised it in the 2012 election cycle and the Supreme Court struck down bans in 11 states. On the eve of 2015, gay marriage is permissible in nearly half of all states and polling evidence suggests that the country is embracing the rainbow flag. This has been blamed in part on the intemperate language of the Right. But Thom’s analysis is very different. “You win when the other side stops fighting. And we started to lose when we ceded the field.” The Right stopped spending on the campaigns and talking about family values with the old fervour. What had kept Barack Obama from endorsing gay marriage for so long was fear of political reprisal, “and when he realised that the threat of reprisal had no teeth, the president changed his mind”.

Thom says that, while battles have been lost, the war is not over – despair, let’s not forget, is a sin. But for the short term he predicts that the institution of marriage will be further eroded and persecution will follow. “There are people [running businesses] who are getting fined [for refusing to serve at gay ceremonies] and for every person who pays the fine there are dozens of business people who just quietly give up, who don’t even try to stand up for their beliefs anymore… People are good at avoiding the axe when it’s hanging above other people.”

We paused in the middle of the interview for a fresh glass, and I observed that, although Thom was physically flagging with all this talk of fights lost and won, it was his enthusiasm for articulating the faith that forced the body to keep on going. I asked carefully about what he remembered about the accident. The answer was “nothing”. His amnesia is total.

Thom had been on a work retreat in Maryland and just before dinner announced that he wanted to go swimming. No one saw him for “quite some time” – until he was found floating face down in the water. His spine was wrecked and he didn’t quite get to the appropriate medical facilities fast enough. “In these cases, it’s all about how fast they treat you.” The precious “golden hour”, in which so much can be done to repair the spine, ran out. “I missed it. I totally missed it,” he said.

What followed must have been agonising. He later wrote: “It took six weeks to patch me up to a medically stable position suitable enough to transfer me to a rehabilitation centre in Washington DC. For six weeks in Baltimore, nurses and doctors battled infections and secretions to heal the damage my lungs had suffered from ingesting filthy water. I was placed in a metal halo in an effort to save my fractured vertebra. And when that effort ultimately failed, I underwent a two-day surgery to replace the damaged vertebra with a titanium cage.

The surgeons also fused my fourth and sixth vertebrae to strengthen my neck. I was intubated, given a tracheostomy, re-intubated and put back on the tracheostomy.”

But Thom never gave up. He worked his way through painful therapy and what he has achieved is nothing less than a miracle. Improvements come in fits and starts. “My right thumb started moving only a month ago and that’s after a year of injury… and one of the things I’m most grateful for is my left hand. With this kind of injury, I shouldn’t be able to use my hands at all.” In fact, he shouldn’t be able to use his arms or torso – yet Thom moves around, gesticulating, seemingly comfortably mobile from his waist up. That’s down to the therapy, but also to the love of friends and family. People asked priests to celebrate Masses for him, brought food, helped Natalie take breaks and sent in donations to help pay for the ultra-expensive care. To have had his world “instantly contracted” into one room was one of the worst things he suffered, so to read letters from all corners of the globe offering prayers and best wishes meant so much. Of course, there were missives of hate from those who took pleasure in his sudden change of fortune. Luckily, Thom and Natalie didn’t have to deal with them: their friends and allies sifted through the mail to throw out the nasty stuff.

“Everything in the West is built around independence,” Thom says. But today he values interdependence. “In the past, if I ordered a cab and I didn’t like the cab, I could refuse to get into it. Now… on any given day there are only three or four wheelchair accessible cabs in Washington DC, and so it doesn’t matter if that guy shows up [and I don’t like the service]. He’s my only ride – and if he doesn’t show up, I’m not going home. So I need people. And Catholic social teaching talks about friends and family. But it takes on a much different meaning when it’s about life and death. My wife gets me through the day. I can’t go on alone – and where her aid ends, the rest of the world must pitch in to help.”

This much he has learned about humanity: “When you’re in my position you realise that [able-bodied people] are simply gods in terms of what you can do. You wake up, you have fears and concerns – but what you can physically do is extraordinary. And it doesn’t matter how long you’ve lived that way with physical potential, you only miss it when it’s gone… I still look at myself and think it’s amazing what I can still do.”

The final, most difficult question, is how all of this has affected his faith. Thom replies that it is still strong – and I believe him. But there’s a deliberate, carefully phrased quality to his comments from which I infer that he has been forced to rethink a lot. Above all, his relationship to other people. “I have had to come to live with radical trust” in other human beings, he says. Now he is working on a new online app that will help to increase participation in electoral politics – a sign that he has found new ways to direct his talents. And I hope he appreciates that the radical trust of which he speaks goes both ways. He has had to rely on his friends, but his friends have also had to rely on his remarkable determination to survive and continue. As the glasses emptied and the interview ended, I, for one, trusted that some day I would be calling him Senator Peters.

This article first appeared in The Catholic Herald magazine (12/12/14)