Tragic accident sheds light on Elias’ natural ability to help others
Watch Ted Elias interact with classmates and help care for a volunteer patient in an occupational therapy setting, and he looks like a natural when it comes to helping those in need.
“Ted has a background in teaching and is a natural researcher, listener and problem solver,” says Debbie Bebeau, an occupational therapy clinical instructor at UW–Madison. “He is amazingly patient, considerate and respectful to all.”
Despite these attributes, Elias’ drive to earn a master’s degree from the Department of Kinesiology’s Occupational Therapy (OT) program has been anything but easy. He started the OT program in the fall of 2013 — more than a decade after he earned an undergraduate degree in history and then gave teaching a try.
“I was a musician and artist in high school, so the sciences weren’t really up my alley,” says Elias, who had to pass an anatomy and physiology class in the fall of 2012 before he could even apply to the OT program. “So I’ve had to get over that fear, and then just getting back into the groove of college took some getting used to. But even though it’s been challenging, I’ve really enjoyed being a part of the OT program.”
The biggest obstacle to pursuing the master’s degree, however, is the fact that Elias also is the primary caretaker for his 9-year-old daughter, Isabella, and his wife, Tabea, who suffered a traumatic brain injury nearly a decade ago.
• • •
It was January 2005 when the lives of Ted and Tabea Elias were forever changed. One moment, they were a young, active couple and the proud parents of a 5-month-old daughter. The next, Tabea was fighting for her life. While she was putting Isabella into her infant car seat, another vehicle sideswiped Tabea. Amazingly, Isabella wasn’t seriously injured. Tabea wasn’t nearly as fortunate.
She spent two months in a coma before gradually working her way back to consciousness. Tabea was then transferred to a long-term brain injury unit, where she continued to make slow progress and eventually was able to return home with Ted. Tabea barely spoke for that first year and displayed profound deficits, such as a significant lack of coordination and severe short-term memory challenges.
And since the current healthcare system isn’t designed to manage and care for those with chronic injury or illness, Ted — in addition to caring for a toddler — was tasked with helping Tabea make strides in her recovery.
Bebeau, a veteran therapist with more than 15 years of experience in the field, reports that she has witnessed many similar situations over the years in which people care for a loved one without consistent help from healthcare professionals. In most instances, Bebeau says that these patients have significant physical limitations and often display obvious signs of depression.
What stood out about Tabea, recalls Bebeau, was her physical, emotional and mental state.
“Tabea had stopped receiving the professional skilled services several years earlier but Ted had seamlessly assumed the roles of physical therapist, occupational therapist, speech therapist and health care advocate — all while continuing his roles as husband and father,” says Bebeau.
“As I further got to know Ted and Tabea, I was amazed by his innate ability to come up with treatment strategies and ideas to help Tabea, not only physically but also cognitively, emotionally and socially.”
• • •
Bebeau first met the Elias family about four years ago, when Tabea started taking part in a class that gives master’s students in the OT program hands-on assessment, observation and treatment planning skills. The program is a win-win for both the patient, who receives quality help at no cost, and the students, who can work with real people.
It was shortly thereafter that Bebeau and others at UW–Madison started prodding Ted Elias to consider pursuing a master’s degree in occupational therapy.
“I would talk with (Bebeau) about Tabea’s condition and what we were doing at home and she really liked how I was talking with Tabea about therapy,” says Ted. “And one day she says, ‘Hey, Ted, you ought to apply to the OT program.’ But I was out of school for over 10 years and I told her I have a history degree and how I really didn’t think it would work.”
After giving it more thought, however, Ted ultimately decided that earning the degree would be a golden opportunity for him to find ways to help others, in addition to Tabea, recover from injuries. During the fall semester of 2012, he took an anatomy and a physiology course at UW–Madison before tacking on a statistics and abnormal psychology course in spring 2013 to fulfill the prerequisites he would need to apply to the OT program.
“To be out of school so long and to jump right into these classes was super challenging,” says Ted. “But I pushed through.”
He is starting his second year in the OT program, and if all goes as planned he’ll graduate in May.
Tabea continues to receive help through the OT program. In addition, she also volunteers with the physical therapy program, and swims and gets in other physical activities with the Department of Kinesiology’s Adaptive Fitness Program.
“All these programs have been so incredibly supportive of us,” says Ted.
Tabea has come a long, long way since her accident nearly a decade ago. At first, she couldn’t walk or feed herself. There was a time, not so long ago, when Ted didn’t think he’d ever be able to leave her at home alone. But today, Tabea can get around with a walker and can be left at home alone for several hours at a time.
“She can get around and feed herself breakfast now,” Ted says of Tabea. “Cognitively, she has made a lot of strides as well. If something isn’t right she knows how to call me on the phone. Honestly, a few years ago I would have never imagined her doing stuff like that and being so independent. UW–Madison has really stretched us to think about all that’s possible.”
Moving forward, Ted hopes to play an even larger role in helping Tabea — and others — improve their lives. He wants to some day work in an intensive care unit with trauma patients, and this past summer did fieldwork in the burn unit at UW Hospital. In addition, he recently helped put together a group at Metro Believers Church in Madison that’s designed to bring awareness and opportunity for those with special needs.
“I want to use my opportunity at UW–Madison to bolster my OT skills and expertise so I can better use my personal experiences to help encourage and strengthen those hurting or wounded,” says Ted Elias.