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Still moving forward

Matt Thomas was mountain biking on Wagner Butte near Talent in 2009 when his life changed forever.

The experienced biker and whitewater kayaker went over a jump, overshot the landing and smashed into the ground, damaging a vertebra in his neck.

Thomas was paralyzed from the chest down, with limited mobility and strength in his arms and hands.

“Having a spinal cord injury is a crazy thing, and I don’t know if people can fully realize the shock of it,” he said. “One second I’m blazing through the woods on my mountain bike and the next second I’m in a helicopter in an almost-going-to-die situation.”

Following his accident, Thomas had to find a wheelchair-accessible place to live and navigate the maze of applying for Social Security disability benefits and Medicare and Medicaid health insurance.

He already had an undergraduate degree in civil engineering and decided to pursue a master’s degree through online college courses.

“I knew I wanted to go back to work, and I knew with having a break in employment, finding gainful employment was going to be challenging. So I thought a master’s degree would help with that,” he said.

But Thomas was also worried that if he tried to work and failed, he would lose his disability benefits, his government-provided health care and payments for a caregiver who helps him get in and out of bed and handle personal hygiene tasks.

“I was very afraid of that. I was very worried about that. Because the process of getting Social Security in the first place is challenging. They’re not the best people to interact with. I’d rather go to the dentist and have all my teeth drilled out than deal with them again,” he said. “So I was afraid I would lose my benefits, and then trying to get back on it would be really hard.”

Fortunately for Thomas, the Social Security Administration offers a free Ticket to Work program.

In his case, the program protected his disability payments for nine months while he attempted to go back to work.

People who use the Ticket to Work program may also be eligible to keep their federal health coverage for a minimum of 93 months — almost eight years, according to the Social Security Administration.

Even if they work and earn enough money to have their disability payments stop, people who are not successful in their work attempts in the long run can have their disability benefits start up again without having to complete a new application, according to the Social Security Administration.

Thomas also uses Oregon’s Employed Persons with Disabilities program to keep his Medicaid health insurance. The long-term program helps him pay for a caregiver.

At first, he wasn’t sure he would be able to handle a job.

“I was worried that working would be too difficult and impact my health negatively. So it was challenging,” he said.

But with the Ticket to Work program as a safety net, Thomas sent out resumes to more than 100 employers.

He eventually got offers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Restoration Design Group, a Berkeley, California-based firm that specializes in landscape architecture and stream restoration.

“I have a lifelong love affair with rivers, so I really wanted to work in stream restoration,” Thomas said.

The firm clinched the deal by offering to let Thomas work part-time and from his Medford home as an engineer. He eventually bumped up to three-quarter time and now has a full-time position.

Working on a computer from his home office allows him to skip morning and evening commutes. He can drive but needs help getting from his wheelchair into his vehicle.

“I love it. It’s great,” Thomas said of his job. “It’s one of the few things in my life that feels pretty normal. Driving and working are the two things that feel the most normal for me.”

Thomas’ biggest work challenge is that he’s not able to visit inaccessible sites in person. He has co-workers take photos and is considering investing in a drone outfitted with a camera.

Thomas said the Ticket to Work program is a win-win for everyone.

“Now I’m like a contributing person to society. I pay taxes — state and federal,” he said.

Thomas said being able to work again has helped him cope with his injury.

“Your whole life is completely just turned upside down and it never goes back to being the same, which is hard, because you want to go back to those days before. And that also is a trap, because you’ll never be able to get there. So if you expend all your resources and energy trying to recreate what you had before, it’s a losing battle. It’s a fine line of accepting where you’re at but not letting it destroy you,” he said.

Thomas said he still has bad days, but he feels blessed to have the support of his girlfriend, family and friends. With his health coverage protected and a job, he and his girlfriend plan to marry. They’ve already adopted a little girl.

“In a lot of ways — except for the walking thing — my life now is better than it was before. So no matter what happens to you, keep moving forward. Good things can still happen,” he said.

For information about the Ticket to Work program, see choosework.ssa.gov or call the help line at 1-866-968-7842 or 1-866-833-2967 (TTY) between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Eastern time Monday through Friday.

For more information about Oregon’s Employed Persons with Disabilities program, see apps.state.or.us/Forms/Served/de9029.pdf or call 1-800-282-8096.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Matt Thomas, who was paralyzed in a mountain-biking accident in 2009, works as a civil engineer after taking part in a program that protected his disability and health care benefits while he was seeing whether he could work again. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune