Southeast graduate overcomes crushing 2003 truck accident

Sunday, May 14, 2006

An accident nearly crushed Greg Smith to death, but it didn't crush his spirit.

On Saturday, Smith graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a bachelor's degree in therapeutic recreation and the zeal to help others overcome the physical handicaps of injuries and disease.

"I've got a second chance at life," said the bald and bearded 35-year-old graduate from Cape Girardeau. "I am making the most of it."

A fan of the Grateful Dead, he is fond of a verse from a Jerry Garcia song: "Once in a while you can get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right."

For Smith, that strangest of places was an overturned concrete truck.

The April 11, 2003, accident, caused by a blown front tire, crushed his left leg and almost ripped his left arm out of its socket. His ribs were broken. He suffered extensive muscle and back injuries.

It took firefighters several hours to free him. He still remembers talking to rescuers about how best to free his leg.

"I pretty well talked them through the rescue," Smith said.

He was airlifted to Saint Francis Medical Center for treatment.

Smith said he was lucky to be alive. "It was a miracle," he said.

He worked hard to recover, enduring months of painful physical rehabilitation. He spent almost two years undergoing physical therapy. He also had surgery on his spine.

But the ordeal did more than strengthen his body. It also gave him a new purpose in life.

"It feels pretty good," said Smith, breaking into an easy smile.

Prior to the accident, Smith bounced around from job to job. He farmed, trimmed trees, operated heavy equipment and drove a beer truck.

He attended college off and on. "I was very laid-back. I just really didn't care about much."

A skilled athlete in high school, he graduated from Cape Girardeau Central High School in 1988. He enrolled at Southeast Missouri State University in 1988 on athletic scholarships to play soccer and baseball. "I was an 18-year-old know-it-all," he recalled.

But he tore his groin playing soccer and wasn't able to get out on the field in spring baseball. He quit school. "I had to get out here and live."

He married in June 2002. The couple divorced a year and a half later -- less than a year after the accident. What remains from that marriage is a son named River, now 3 years old.

"He is my pride and joy," said Smith, who shares custody of River with his ex-wife.

In the chaos of the accident, all Smith could think about was his son. "I remember praying aloud to God, 'Please God, let me see my son again.'"

Smith believes his prayer was answered.

While his love for his son hasn't changed, his outlook on life has.

These days, Smith is intently focused on a career as a recreational therapist. He latched onto that while going through rehab himself.

"It really got to me when I saw patients that didn't care," he said.

So he decided to go back to college and major in recreational therapy because he wanted to motivate such patients to overcome their physical handicaps or difficulties.

"That was my calling," he said. "I want to tell people, 'You can still re-create yourself. The only limitations you have are in your own mind.'"

The Missouri Department of Vocational Rehabilitation gave him a full scholarship to return to college starting in the summer of 2004.

"I went and I never looked back," said Smith, who plans to pursue a master's degree in therapeutic recreation at Southern Illinois University. He has an internship this summer, working at a camp in Southern Illinois that provides recreation for handicapped people.

Recreation professor Dr. Ed Leoni was Smith's academic adviser at Southeast. Leoni said he encouraged Smith, both in the classroom and on outdoor adventure trips with students.

Smith embraced recreational therapy not so much as a job but as a mission.

"He has a passion for it," Leoni said.

Saturday's commencement was a new experience for Smith.

In high school, he didn't get to graduate with all his classmates. Smith and the rest of the 1988 Central baseball team were in Columbia, Mo., seeking a state title.

They lost their semifinal game. Smith and the fellow seniors on the team ended up donning caps and gowns for a makeshift graduation ceremony at the Holiday Inn. "We threw our hats into the ceiling tiles," he recalled.

But no one really felt like celebrating. "We were still a little distraught we had lost," he said.

This time it was different. This time, Smith experienced the pomp and circumstance of commencement. But the real joy was in celebrating his newfound life in front of family and friends.

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