Originally created 11/25/03

Once-paralyzed man realizes dream of becoming sheriff

SANDERSVILLE, Ga. -- One morning more than a decade ago, Thomas Smith woke up and his feet wouldn't move.

Twenty minutes later, he had trouble breathing. Soon he was in the hospital.

So much for his lifelong dream of becoming a sheriff, Smith thought.

But today, he's reached that goal.

Smith, 43, has twice been elected Washington County sheriff. Last month, Gov. Sonny Perdue gave him the sheriffs' 2003 Public Safety Award for achievements including being the first in the country to offer a GED program for county inmates.

"The best thing you can say about Thomas is he overcame adversity and he helps his people," said Terry Norris of the Georgia Sheriffs' Association, where Smith will become president next summer. "He's tougher than a lightered knot. He has been through so much adversity."

In 1991, Smith was so paralyzed he had to wink once for yes, twice for no.

If a friend hadn't arrived at Smith's house when he did, Smith believes he would have died.

"I couldn't figure out why this had happened to me," Smith said. "It got to a point where I asked God to take me away."

Smith was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare but rapid onset of weakness or paralysis in which the body's immune system typically attacks the body itself.

The syndrome can be triggered by vaccinations and it has no known cause or cure. In Smith's case, a flu shot sparked the disease.

Smith was paralyzed from the neck down, and he spent five months on a ventilator, at times feeling "like somebody's driving nails into you."

The day after he prayed for his life to end, he began to get better.

"That's when my feelings became so strong about God," said Smith, who has turned one room of his jail into a chapel.

Now he's nearly completely recovered.

He wears ankle braces, has lost some grip in his right hand and speaks with a gravelly voice because of scar tissue that built up on his vocal chords.

Smith said he wanted to be a sheriff ever since he was a child.

He went so far as to skip school so he could spend time at the police station.

As sheriff, he decided to help inmates better themselves.

Smith and Sandersville Technical College started offering the GED program about two years ago. Because inmates spend a relatively short time in jail, those who want a GED are given an evaluation exam, and the program focuses only on what they need.

Some critics have told Smith they think criminals ought to be working on the side of the road, not taking classes.

"That was on my mind when I was thinking about these programs," he said. "But I know it's the right thing to do."

The jails also offer weekly Alcoholics Anonymous sessions and will find drug treatment programs for misdemeanor offenders awaiting trial.


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