On Saturday, 175 graduates of the Montana State University Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship will make their way across the stage to receive their hard-earned diplomas. For one student, the accomplishment is the culmination of a life-altering diagnosis, a wealth of love and support, a new hope and the will to succeed.
It was January 2012 when Scott Thomas, a senior finance major at MSU from Stevensville, began falling down during his routine walks between home and campus.
A couple of months later, Thomas was warming up before his first intramural softball game of the season when he realized he felt weak and off balance. Still, during his first at-bat he managed to get a hit and was running to first base when, he said, “what seemed like every muscle in my legs” began cramping severely.
“That was the first time I realized something was seriously wrong, but I didn't want to believe it,” he said. “I attributed my unusual symptoms to being out of shape. Then, my girlfriend – who is now my unbelievably incredible wife – noticed my left triceps was twitching.”
Thomas finished the semester and moved to the Bitterroot Valley to start his career as an insurance executive. Still six hours short of earning his degree, he enrolled at the University of Montana to finish his last two courses.
He also decided to see a doctor in the hopes he could learn the reason for the puzzling symptoms he had been having since the beginning of the year. It would take a couple of months and multiple tests with his doctor and a neurologist before he got his answer.
On Aug. 7, 2012, just weeks before he was due to start classes at UM, Thomas was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“The neurologist basically said you have two to four years to live and there's nothing we can do to help you,” Thomas said. “I decided that finishing school was not important at the time and dropped my courses.”
Thomas continued working for a year until the disease progressed to the point he could no longer do his job effectively.
It literally took an act of Congress to get Thomas to return to school.
“Last year, Congress passed the Steve Gleason Act, which allowed Medicare to pay for eye-gaze computers for people like myself,” Thomas said. “Once I knew I could get a computer, I knew it was my opportunity to get back in the game.”
An eye-operated computer uses a specialized computer-mounted video camera to observe one of the user’s eyes and determine where the person is looking on the screen. To type, the user “presses” a key on the screen by gazing at it for a specified period of time.
“To say my computer has changed my life would be an understatement,” Thomas said. “I encourage anyone who could benefit to strongly consider getting one.”
While his father, Montana state Senator Fred Thomas, looked for online classes Thomas could take for his last semester, Thomas worked on getting – and learning – his computer.
“The beginning of the semester was challenging, trying to learn how to operate the computer and getting back into the swing of school,” Thomas said. “But, I wanted to finish what I had started, and I also did it for my mom and dad. I know my graduation means a great deal to them.”
The Thomases found the classes they were looking for in MSU’s Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship with the help of Associate Professors Frank Kerins and Gary Caton. Thomas resumed his classes this spring, completing the six hours he needed to earn his finance degree.
“Frank and Gary are pillars in the business program at MSU,” Thomas said. “They did a great job of providing one of the best learning environments in the nation. They have been nothing but kind and helpful to me.”
Thomas calls his journey between diagnosis and graduation “a team effort” for which he is thankful.
“I’m thankful for my wife, Sarah, my family and friends, everyone from MSU who has helped me, Professor Scott Johnson from UM who helped me this semester and the countless others who have supported me," he said.
“After my diagnosis, I never imagined I would graduate. Walking across the stage on Saturday will be an extremely proud moment for my loved ones and for me.”
Also proud of Thomas’ accomplishment is Kregg Aytes, dean of the Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship, and the college’s faculty and staff.
“It has taken a tremendous amount of perseverance for Scott to finish his degree,” Aytes said. “He faced big obstacles and I’m glad that we were able to help, in a small way, clear away some of them. We’re all proud of his accomplishment.”
Thomas has already started his job search and says he has a great life, bolstered by his faith and the love and support of his family and friends.
Along with family and friends, he helps to raise money to find a cure for ALS by taking part in the ALS Association’s Walk to Defeat ALS. He supports Team Gleason, an ALS organization named for former NFL player Steve Gleason, who was diagnosed with the disease in 2011. It was the act named for Gleason that provided Thomas with the means to get his computer.
His advice to others facing similar challenges is to find purpose and meaning in life.
“We live in an amazing time full of possibilities for everyone, no matter the limitations,” Thomas said. “The future is uncertain, but I've decided to start living fully and have optimism that I will be around to see the cure for ALS.”
Scott Thomas welcomes questions regarding EyeGaze technology or Team Gleason. He can be contacted at email@example.com.