Courage Takes on a New Meaning for Critically Injured Firefighter
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By NCCI Insights November 27, 2017

"It takes a village— from the providers to the insurance to the work employer and everything—it just takes a lot of people working in concert."



As a fire manager, Tom faced risk daily, but he loved his job. He was well prepared to respond when a hang glider crashed on Lookout Mountain in Golden, CO. While attempting to rescue the victim, Tom was lifted, then thrown by the hang glider and tumbled 15 feet down a rock outcropping.

Tom then became the critical patient, nearly dying at the scene. His heart stopped and he was not breathing. The onsite paramedic acted quickly to revive Tom and transport him to St. Anthony’s Hospital in Denver for stabilization. Tom had fractured several cervical vertebrae (C3–C5), injuring his spinal cord.


Paralyzed from the neck down due to the fall, Tom was not able to breathe on his own when he arrived at the hospital in critical condition. Upon gaining consciousness, his first thoughts were of his future and his family. He did not believe he would ever work again or be able to support them.

Pinnacol immediately responded to Tom’s claim and established close communication with his family, the Golden Fire Department, and his medical providers. Claims staff checked in frequently to ensure family and medical providers met Tom’s needs so he could focus on his recovery.

Tom recovered initially at St. Anthony Hospital so that he could move to rehab at Craig Hospital, which specializes in spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries. There he could learn how to adapt to being a quad and living the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

Pinnacol claims staff continued to communicate frequently with Tom and his wife.


  • Employee is treated by a top hospital that specializes in spinal cord injuries
  • Personal attention from carrier provides the emotional support necessary to move through a difficult and lengthy recovery process as a quadriplegic
  • The insurer’s claim staff reassured the employee and his wife about how the financial side would be managed so that he could focus on his rehabilitation without worry
  • Despite ongoing pain and depression, the employee was dedicated to his rehabilitation
  • The employer goes above and beyond to adapt the workspace and create a new position for the employee
  • The employee is proud to return to work and refers to it as "mental therapy"—he embraces new responsibilities and job duties

"We had enough to worry about with my injury and I was glad I didn’t have to worry about my insurance benefits,” he said. “We could focus our energy on other items of importance, like trying to move back to a position where I could be productive rather than sitting at home feeling sorry for myself."

Emotional recovery was as much a part of the process as adapting to physical limitations. Tom admits he did not have a good attitude at first, feeling frustrated and hopeless. Getting personal attention from his insurance provider, Pinnacol, helped Tom look toward the future.

Tom’s wife was his greatest supporter, convincing him that life must go on. After two years of recovery, Tom let his former employer know he was ready to get back to work in some capacity.

“Golden went above and beyond,” Tom recalled. “They did whatever they could to get me back working.”


As a quadriplegic, it wasn’t feasible for Tom to return to his firefighter role. He worked with an occupational therapist who looked at his workspace and recommended accommodations.

Tom had to take it slow because he still suffered from intense pain, but his employer was supportive and created a new job with administrative duties that Tom could perform with adaptive equipment and voice-activated software. His fire department duties grew and over time, he was asked to manage the city’s government access television channel. He enjoys having a lot to do and went back to work almost full time—and would be happy to work more hours if it was feasible.

Returning to work was extremely important to Tom.

"It gave me a sense of purpose. One of the main reasons I went back to work was to give my kids a sense of normalcy. They saw me get up and go to work every day like their friends’ parents," he said.