Jerry Tobias (B.S. ′78, Physical Education) has four kids between the ages of 13 and 24. “Because of them, I remind myself that giving up is never an option,” he said.
You could characterize this father of four and first-generation college graduate as perseverant, resolute or maybe just plain tough. When the going got tough for him, Jerry got tougher. The Bronco alumnus has achieved more than many (if not most) and he’s done so despite having to vault over a tremendous health obstacle.
“The closest thing I had to compare this to was the feeling you experience when your arm or foot falls asleep from sitting in the wrong position under your full body weight,” he writes in chapter four of the book that chronicles his life. “My whole body was enveloped in this tingling numbness.”
That tingling numbness was the result of a misjudged two and three-quarter front somersault on the trampoline.
Before that fateful day in 1975, Jerry was a vibrant, talented and dedicated gymnast at WMU. “Honestly, my interest was in sports, particularly gymnastics,” he said. “Academics was not my first priority at the time. Dennis Spencer, a friend and previous WMU gymnast, convinced me to attend Western. Fred Orlofsky, the gymnastics coach, was also very instrumental in helping me make my decision.”
Tall and thin, Jerry did not have the typical build of a gymnast. Still, he’d landed the somersault before. An article in the Detroit News reported that he’d honed himself at Seaholm High School in Birmingham and had learned enough gymnastics skills to become a competitive gymnast during his senior year.
However, landing what’s known as a “blind” trick is no easy feat, regardless of the gymnast’s size.
“While you’re in the air, you can’t see to judge your progress, so you have to count the somersaults as you spin and instinctively choose to open at the precise moment to allow a safe landing,” Jerry explained. “And, of course, all of this has to happen in just seconds.”
But Jerry didn’t bounce high and rotate fast enough this time. He landed on top of his head and experienced a numbing paralysis almost immediately from his shoulders down to his toes. The only feeling he had was excruciating pain in the back of his neck. In the ER at Borgess Hospital in Kalamazoo, he was instructed to concentrate on his breathing, or they’d have to place him on a ventilator.
When his parents arrived at the hospital, doctors said their son’s estimated chance of recovery was 1 in 200,000. Jerry was put in traction and told he’d likely never walk again.
Lucky to be alive, he began to breathe easier during the coming days in the ICU, but he still couldn’t feel anything in his arms and legs. Jerry’s prognosis appeared bleak until weeks later, when he was somehow able to wiggle a toe. From that point on, he began to recover more rapidly. To provide greater stability to his injury, he underwent a spinal fusion and had a disc surgically removed from his neck.
Jerry remained hopeful he wouldn’t be permanently paralyzed, and by sheer will and a miracle, he wasn’t. Since recovering from quadriplegia, he’s had to cope with his share of physical and mental challenges though.
“There was a long time when I was only angry this had happened to me. Sports, gymnastics especially, had been everything before the accident,” he told the Detroit News. “Somehow, I felt it shouldn’t have happened to me. I guess it took me about a year before I could grow up and say, ‘Thank you, God, thank you for letting me walk again.’ Now I say it all the time.”
Along with gratitude, Jerry has also had to summon grit and grace to get through each day, even after all these years. “I continue to struggle with many neurological deficits, especially fatigue, muscle weakness and ambulatory difficulties,” he added. “Every day, I’m continually required to dig deep, and give a maximum effort, just to function with some normalcy.”
Yet he’s endured and then some.
While Jerry could no longer compete after his injury because of residual weakness, Fred Orlofsky asked him to assist with coaching the men’s gymnastics team. “Fred was my mentor,” he said. “I would go to him with any problems or concerns.”
Following graduation from Western with his bachelor’s degree, he coached elite level women’s gymnastics and occasionally taught as a substitute teacher. What came next for Jerry might surprise you.
“I made a decision to apply for OCS and become a military pilot, was accepted, only to be later rejected. Apparently, my cervical fusion was considered unstable, a possible liability, for the aircraft ejection system,” he said. “After this rejection, I decided to pursue a career as an airline pilot.”
For several years, Jerry served as an instrument and aerobatics flight instructor. He then flew as a freight pilot and eventually transitioned into corporate flying. “With approximately 5,000 hours flight time, it seemed time to fulfill my dream of becoming an airline pilot,” he said.
But wait… Jerry had another aspiration at the back of his mind. “I had always considered a career in medicine, and thought, maybe this was the time to explore the possibility of becoming a physician,” he said. “Over the next several years, I accumulated the necessary prerequisites, and with my B.S. from WMU, was eventually accepted to Michigan State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine.”
When asked about the accomplishment he’s proudest of to date, he answered unequivocally, “Becoming an anesthesiologist.” Yeah, Dr. Jerry Tobias does have a nice ring to it. (Plus, let’s not forget that early on in his anesthesia career, soon after moving to Arizona, he also earned a private helicopter license.)
Is it any wonder Jerry’s advice for current Broncos is to never stop chasing their dreams?
“Regardless of your age—whether it’s 25, 30 or maybe 35—why not continue your studies and achieve an advanced degree? Age should never become a barrier to achieving your goals. Stay positive and remain resilient.”
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