There’s a relentless will to fight inside all of us, and Tom Lee knows how deep it runs.
Four years after retiring from military service, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Tom Lee re-enlisted after the 9/11 attacks. While training, he experienced discomfort and consulted the base physician. The diagnosis was stunning.
“According to the blood and work and the ultrasound, there was a cancer that I was dealing with,” Lee said. “It was testicular cancer, and they wanted to operate immediately.”
Lee miraculously overcame cancer within eight weeks of surgery and radiation therapy. Soon after, he was deployed to Iraq where he faced another threat to his life.
“I started getting that weird feeling almost like when I was going through the cancer, but it was just more intense,” he said. “I radioed to my driver to get us back with the other vehicle. As we were reversing our position, the I.E.D. went off.”
An explosion near his vehicle killed two men and injured Lee.
“I looked down and it was obvious that my right leg was just mangled,” he said.
With the help of reinforcements, Lee escaped and survived a grueling rehabilitation.
Determined to overcome his injury, Lee began competing in paratriathlons. He’s training to represent America in the 2016 Summer Paralympic Games in Brazil in the newly-added paratriathlon.
“So a sport that I’m falling in love with has provided me the opportunity to wear the flag again, but this time I won’t be shot at it,” he said. “I’ll be racing against other countries instead of fighting with them.”
Lee’s international journey started in Irving, where paralympians from around the world competed for qualifying points. Inspiration was everywhere, as athletes with unique physical challenges shared in lee’s goal to represent their countries at the games.
Lee cruised in the opening disciplines — swimming and cycling — but with the finish line just 100 yards away, lee’s dream led to an unforeseen fight for his life.
“He passed by me and I had my iPhone out and I was video taping and screaming and yelling and he just basically face planted,” teammate Jared Rose said.
Rose realized Lee’s body was over heated. As race officials gathered to help, Lee maintained consciousness and pleaded his case to finish the race.
“At that point, it got pretty clear after the first five or 10 steps of us holding him that he was past the point of really being able to make that decision for himself cognitively,” Rose said.
Paramedics rushed Lee to the hospital with a serious heat stroke.
“We actually had to put him on life support,” Las Colinas Medical Center Medical Director Khiem Chu said. “When the temperature gets that high, 107, you have potential for brain injury, kidney failure and many other medical conditions.”
Lee said he doesn’t remember much about that day, but he’s back training for the Paralympic Games. His goal to wear red, white and blue on the biggest stage is amazingly back on track. First the cancer, then his leg accident and now surviving a heat stroke, Tom Lee is relentless.
“That’s what a lot of my friends have said. A cat with nine lives,” he said. “It’s just one of those things. Live, you know. Live and continue to live.”
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