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After a devastating accident, a couple supports the group that helped their son cope.
By Kristin Waterfield Duisberg

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It took mere seconds for the wave to pick up Nathan Loomis '07, bodysurfing off a Caribbean island in the spring of 1998, and drive him headfirst to the ocean floor. The impact broke the 17-year-old's neck, critically damaging his spinal cord. Trapped first in the churning surf and then on the remote island, Nate clung to life. But as his family—parents Jim and Anne and older brother, Jeremy—sprang into action, one thing was clear: although Nate's accident might be devastating, they would get through it together.

The Loomis family had always been exceptionally close. A gang of four so tight that they were fondly referred to by friends as "the Loomi," they did everything together: skiing and tuna fishing, sailing on their custom 30-foot sloop Annie and taking road trips for the boys' high school swim meets. When the boys were very young, the family lived in Bermuda, where Jim worked for an international office systems company. Later, when he co-founded Bottomline Technologies, a financial transaction processing company, the family moved to Durham, and the Loomis house became home base not just for Jeremy and Nate but also for the teenage boys' friends. "My parents are the kind of people who always made our friends feel like they belonged there every bit as much as we did," Nate recalls.

These bonds of family and friends would make all the difference. Jim, Jeremy, and Nate had been bodysurfing together when Jeremy realized his brother hadn't resurfaced. He dove underwater to find Nate and pulled him to shore. Immediately grasping the gravity of Nate's condition, the family set to work getting him back to the United States for medical treatment—a task that proved easier said than done. Unable to find a local air carrier that could safely evacuate their son, the Loomises turned to Jim's brother, Lyon, who contacted New Hampshire politicians Gov. Jeanne Shaheen and U.S. Senator Judd Gregg. Working with authorities in the Caribbean and William Cohen, U.S. Secretary of Defense, Lyon Loomis, Shaheen and Gregg arranged for Nate's military medical transport and admission to Craig Hospital in Denver, Colo., an acute-care facility specializing in spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries. "That these two public figures would go to the lengths they did to help us get Nate out of the Caribbean—and over a weekend, no less—was a real spot of brightness in what was obviously a pretty dark and scary time," says Jim.

At Craig, the Loomises learned what they had suspected and feared: the damage to Nate's spinal cord was irreversible, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. Right away, the family went to work reshaping their lives to accommodate Nate's new needs, working long-distance with a New Hampshire contractor who put five other projects on hold to make their Durham house handicapped accessible by the time the family came home at the end of July.

"In Colorado, we were in this medical-science cocoon, and in the months he was there, Nate made tremendous, heartening progress," Jim recalls. "The prospect of leaving that cocoon behind and returning home was daunting, to say the least." While still at Craig, the family received an unexpected lift: in the hospital's therapeutic recreation department, Anne discovered an unassuming yellow pamphlet advertising the services of Northeast Passage. A therapeutic recreation and adaptive sports program now housed at UNH, Northeast Passage focuses on offering people with disabilities a wide array of physical activities—and it was based, of all places, in Durham, N.H. For the Loomises, the discovery was more than a stroke of luck; it was a lifeline, an organization equal to their determination to provide Nate with any opportunity he had the desire to pursue. As they faced their return to the New Hampshire Seacoast, the daunting suddenly seemed doable.

These days, the Loomis family can't imagine their lives without Northeast Passage. Six months after the accident, Jim visited the organization's offices in the basement of Hewitt Hall, brainstorming with founder Jill Gravink '86 and assistant director Tom Carr '97 about various activities Nate could try. Nate himself was not entirely sold on the group's offerings until Carr persuaded him to check out quad rugby—a fast-moving, four-on-four wheelchair sport, complete with trash talk and plenty of contact and team camaraderie. "I went to watch a practice, and from the moment I saw it, from the first wheelchair collision, I was hooked," Nate says. "I knew right away that was going to be the sport for me."

Anne was less convinced. Aware of the sport's physicality and anxious about the prospect of his getting hurt again, Nate's mother took a full six months to embrace her son's new passion. But today quad rugby and Northeast Passage are a full family affair. Nate is a starting defenseman for the NEP Wildcats "A" squad, an intimidator who wears #13 and plays with a competitive intensity. Anne is the team mother, baking cookies and cheering at every game and tournament, with Jeremy and his wife, Kelsey, typically at her side. And Jim is the team's equipment manager, fixing battered chairs on the fly.

Jim has also served as the chairman of Northeast Passage's advisory board, and he and Anne are the organization's leading financial supporters, although those are two titles he is unlikely to divulge. Indeed, if the family can't imagine their lives without Northeast Passage, the organization feels the same way about them. In recognition of their support, Jim and Anne Loomis received the UNH Foundation's Hubbard Family Award for Service to Philanthropy last September.

Of course, it is impossible for the Loomises not to sometimes imagine what their life would look like now if it hadn't been for Nate's accident, but they are the type of people who count their blessings, not their misfortunes. In 2007, Nate earned a bachelor's degree in English with honors from UNH; now 32, he lives independently in downtown Durham, to shorten his trips to the Whittemore Center for rugby practices and workouts, and works for Jeremy's company, Nerd-1-1, an IT consulting company.

It is Jeremy who perhaps best captures what it means to be one of the "Loomi" and how the family's closeness has helped them weather this particular storm. A number of years before Nate's accident, he recalls, the family was on the last day of a weeklong sailing trip when they were socked in by a heavy fog, unable to visually navigate a treacherous stretch of the Maine coast. "My dad didn't panic, though," Jeremy says. "He just kind of looked around and said, 'Well, this is going to be a challenge.' He gave everyone a job to do, kept us all talking, and we just took it one step at a time." Working as a team, the Loomises picked their way through a maze of islands and arrived safely at their home marina unscathed. For two preteen boys, the experience was thrilling. Little did any of them know, however, it was also an important practice exercise for their life ahead, for a test they would pass, as a team, with flying colors. ~

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