By Maddy Vitale
Thomas Collier did the unimaginable. He lived. After a car crash on a New Hampshire road in 1981 that left his skull crushed on the right side, doctors thought he was too far gone and that they should let him go.
One of his friends pulled the fire alarm at the hospital to bring other emergency personnel to the scene. When they arrived, through pleadings by Collier’s friends, he was transported to Dartmouth Medical Center.
That move not only saved Collier’s life, but likely the lives of many others who suffered from traumatic brain injuries in years to follow. Surgeons removed a portion of Collier’s skull to reduce the pressure. It was not a technique used back then. It changed how doctors treat several traumatic brain injuries and has saved countless lives.
And Saturday, Collier’s longtime friend, Robert Dougherty and his wife Peggy, of Ocean City, showed a 53-minute documentary titled “Doubting Thomas” about the amazing story of survival and triumph, at the film’s premier in the Ocean City Free Public Library.
In the documentary, Collier, now 60, confined to a wheelchair because of seizures he began suffering in 2009 due to the brain injury, spoke of what seemed none other than a miracle.
“No one had ever lived with the degree of brain injury I had,” Collier said in the film.
But Dr. Robert Harbaugh, now at Penn State Medical Center and Dr. Richard Saunders, who has since retired, felt they could save him.
Collier, a first-year medical student at Duke University at the time of the crash, was in great physical shape with a strong heart and lungs, Harbaugh recalled in the documentary.
“He had a really bad head injury, but he struggled to get off the stretcher on the right side and opened his eyes,” Harbaugh continued.
Saunders called Collier a remarkable fighter. “You don’t usually wake up,” he said in an interview with the Doughertys of Collier coming out of a coma after suffering such a severe head injury.
Collier spent eight months in the hospital. When he got out, he went through rehabilitation. Doctors told him he may never walk again. He did. And in 1983, he ran a marathon in New York. In 1984, he returned to Duke University as a medical student and became a pathologist in 1986, practicing medicine for 19 years. He was licensed in seven states.
He met a woman Malou, and they married in 1995 and lived in California. They moved to Belgium to be with her family last month, so she could have help caring for her husband, the Doughertys explained.
“The story of Collier’s life, detailed in the documentary, combines faith in God, love and family support, as well as neurosurgeons and medical personnel who were willing to take a “shot” to save a young man’s life,” Dougherty said. “They were thinking outside the box and advancing medical science and the understanding of the human brain.”
Dougherty told the audience how he and Collier met. The two of them grew up in Bergen County but didn’t go to the same schools.
“I played basketball and he played soccer,” Dougherty, 60, said. “We would see each other at events and we became friends.”
College came, and the two men lost contact.
Around 1989, Dougherty, a retired federal agent, picked up the phone to call his old friend. Collier’s father answered and told him about the accident. Shortly after, Dougherty met up with his old friend. It was then, he knew he wanted to do something for his friend. He wanted his friend’s story told.
But it wouldn’t be until years later – in 2016, that Dougherty would make the documentary. He said it took many hours of hard work and collaboration with his wife, Collier’s family, doctors and friends, to make the film possible.
“Everyone doubted Thomas. The young man went through so much,” Robert Dougherty explained as to how he got the title for the documentary to about 70 audience members. “Thomas is an American hero and a medical pioneer.”
The Doughertys hope their documentary will be seen by people who need signs of hope. They want Collier’s story to be uplifting and inspiring, to help people believe that anything is possible.
“This film is about pulling yourself back up,” Robert Dougherty explained. “We want to share this with others who need it.”
Peggy Dougherty, who is a nurse, said this documentary shows that believing someone will be better, and having faith, can help a person get through.
Collier’s five siblings, and his parents were there for him throughout his ordeal, and triumph with many surgeries and hours in rehabilitation along the way.
Some of Collier’s family attended the debut, including his sisters Mary Muniz and Trish Carrigan.
“It was really a miracle,” Muniz said of Collier’s journey. “We thank Bob and Peggy for telling our brother’s story.”
Carrigan spoke of the support her brother had during his ordeal.
“There were five other kids in the family,” Carrigan said. “But my parents said, ‘We will all bring Tom back.’”
Adult Programming Librarian Julie Brown noted that when she watched the documentary she was touched by the inspirational story.
“The documentary is moving,” Brown said. “Bob’s enthusiasm for it is contagious.”
To receive a free copy of the documentary on DVD email Peggy Dougherty at email@example.com.