Like most of us, back in 2014 Thomas Stephenson was a typical 21-year-old. He loved playing sports and being active, was focused on school, and was anxious to show the world his talents and ambition. In many ways, Thomas had his whole life ahead of him. A cycling enthusiast and triathlon competitor, Thomas was in his final semester at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He had just finished managing a number of political campaigns for the election cycle that November. Despite big plans for a bright future, Thomas’s life would change on December 11th.
On December 11th, 2014, Thomas was involved in a fatal car accident when his truck was struck head-on by an oncoming vehicle on I-840, south of Nashville, Tennessee. Thomas’s truck burst into flames and flipped down the interstate the entire length of a football field before coming to a stop.
“Clearly in shock but conscious, my first instinct was to check my surroundings and see if I could get myself out of the car. When I tried to move, I realized much of my lower has been crushed during the collision and wasn’t cooperating,” Thomas recalls. A full diagnosis would later reveal Thomas had shattered his spinal column, crushed both feet and ankles, as well as sustained a broken femur, sternum, and clavicle.
“Thankfully, a good Samaritan, whom I still speak with to this day, helped pull me from the wreckage moments before my truck was fully engulfed in flames.” At 21 years old, Thomas had suddenly gone from a healthy and active triathlete to a trauma victim.
Thomas was immediately transported by LifeFlight to Vanderbilt University Medical Center where he underwent surgery to fuse his spinal column, a separate surgery to put a titanium rod through his femur and subsequent reconstructive surgeries on his feet and ankles. After the surgeries, Thomas was told by his doctors that his life would never be the same. “They told me I would never run, play sports or be active again. It was safe to say my budding triathlon career was over, and I would never be able to cycle again,” Thomas recalls.
In the coming months, Thomas’s injuries were so severe that he would struggle to stand or walk. The pain and swelling through his feet and ankles would continue and he would feel excruciating pain when he would sit for extended periods of time. Thomas’s life would be dramatically different from now on, and he would spend the next few months undergoing rehabilitation in the form of physical therapy.
While Thomas was in the hospital, his legs had atrophied considerably, so his rehabilitation focused mainly on moving his legs and feet to regain normal levels of muscle mass. Thomas recalls, “I just tried to take it day by day. I remember thinking, ‘Would there ever be a time when I would be back to normal again?’”
The stress of the physical therapy would not be the only pain Thomas would feel day in and day out though. Thomas was suffering from emotional trauma as well. “I remember feeling helpless, different, and also hopeless some days. I would feel inadequate at times too. Like things would never be the same again.”
To add to an already intense emotional situation, by the time Thomas left the rehabilitation facility and had gotten back home to Bowling Green for his Spring semester, his insurance-paid physical therapy visits were running out. Thomas’s recovery was incomplete, and he had no choice but to pay for the remainder of his physical therapy out-of-pocket.
“Luckily, I was blessed with a family that could afford to pay for the remainder of my physical therapy. Not everyone is this fortunate unfortunately,” Thomas admits. “Because my family was somewhat financially stable, I never had to concern myself with the stresses of not being able to pay for recovery. I can’t imagine someone having to go through this, on top of an already emotional situation.”
As his physical therapy sessions continued, Thomas continued to progress. He was building back lost muscle and was able to support his body weight, and finally, after countless bouts of hard work, frustration, and determination, Thomas hit his biggest milestone. Thomas was able to stand again.
Feeling accomplished, Thomas’s attitude soon changed, and he would go on to progress even further in the coming months, but learning quickly that he needed to begin athletic and strength training to focus on movement, endurance, and flexibility if he was going to see even more progress.
Today, thanks to ongoing therapy and strength training, Thomas is even more active than ever and was even able to achieve a life-long goal of becoming an Ironman triathlete in 2018. It takes great tenacity to fight through constant mental, physical, and emotional pain and come out on the right end.
Through his fight, Thomas realized that not everyone has the same resources he had access to during his recovery. Wanting to help, Thomas created TENNACITY, a non-profit organization designed to help trauma survivors lead active and fulfilling lifestyles. Thomas knows full well what it feels like to face the reality that your life may never be the same after a tragic accident such as his own, and he’s determined to make sure no one has to feel this type of trauma nor that anyone should have to bare it alone.
TENNACITY recently launched and will help facilitate access to physical therapy and strength conditioning for trauma survivors who may not have the financial resources or access to recovery.
As this article is being written, Thomas and a friend are planning a 24-hour ride through the Natchez Trace Parkway on October 26th. The end of this ride will coincide with a celebration and the launch of TENNACITY at Fieldstone Park in Franklin. This will be Thomas’s first 24-hour ride. “And hopefully my last,” he admits with a laugh. A fitting start to a bright foundation.
People October 22, 2018
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People September 5, 2018
by Lindsay Miller
Sitting in a Nashville suburb of Franklin is the office of one of the country’s most popular natural health websites. With 7,500 sq. ft., this wellness empire is the production headquarters to videos that collect millions of YouTube clicks, comments, and shares from all corners of the globe. It is the home of an unparalleled class of product and education on nutrition, natural medicine, fitness, healthy recipes, DIY home remedies, and trending health news through multiple platforms of media, including Facebook Live, webinars, videos, podcasts, Q&As and ebooks. Dr. Josh Axe is the visionary behind several cutting-edge and premium nutraceutical brands, including Ancient Nutrition, Axe Organics, NUMA Essentials and ProBiome Rx.
The Axe Wellness office is, of course, a health-conscious work environment with kombucha on tap, and a refrigerator stocked with vegetable juice and paleo donuts. Employees have daily exercise times for planks and push-ups. They say the leadership reinforces a culture that is open, transparent, innovative, entrepreneurial, and not bogged down by bureaucracy. Axe Wellness continues to emphasize personal development and growth for their customers, employees and founders alike. This mecca to natural health knowledge is one of the fastest-growing companies in the United States.
Along with Axe Wellness, Dr. Josh Axe and Jordan Rubin (one of Josh’s business partners), founded a supplement company called Ancient Nutrition. They produce Bone Broth Protein, collagen products, essential oils, probiotics, keto products and educational materials. At Ancient Nutrition, Josh says, “The mission is to restore health, strength and vitality by providing history’s healthiest whole food nutrients to the modern world.” Although Ancient Nutrition is only one entity of Axe Wellness, it has become steadily popular of the years. Josh says, “Right now our main focus is on both of these businesses,” meaning the main website, draxe.com and ancientnutrition.com. He explains, “While Ancient Nutrition is mostly product, draxe.com is all about creating and distributing the world’s best content and educating people on how to use food as medicine.”
Both Dr. Josh Axe and his wife, Dr. Chelsea Axe, hold the title DC or Doctor of Chiropractic. Josh is a certified doctor of natural medicine and a clinical nutritionist. A doctor of natural medicine, or DNM, is interdisciplinary in nature and sometimes referred to as traditional or classical naturopaths. DNMs are known to focus primarily upon patient health and not pharmaceuticals. Doctors of natural medicine are a multi-disciplinary group of Natural Health care professionals such as Naturopaths, Homeopaths, Osteopaths, Dentists, Holistic Medical Doctors, Chiropractors, and Eastern Medicine Doctors, among others who have dedicated themselves to providing basic Natural Medicine health care worldwide. It is important to note, the emphasis of naturopathic medicine is the use of all natural healing agents, including methods and products.
Dr. Chelsea Axe is a Tennessee board certified chiropractic physician and a CSCS Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. Her background is largely rooted in sports and to this day she stays extremely active in and outside of the business. Clearly, both Drs. Josh and Chelsea Axe take on a variety of multiple roles to keep their businesses running, but they also play important roles to each other and their community. They are heavily involved with their church, they seem to travel and sweat together when they can, and stay physically active in Music City and all over the world. Perhaps most essential is trying to bring along their two dogs, Oakley and Flash, everywhere they go though.
Josh has been a previous health advisor for many athletes and worked with the Wellness Advisory Council and the University of Michigan Swim Team. In 2008, he founded Exodus Health Center, which quickly grew to more than 1,000 patients per week. He is well known as the author of Eat Dirt and has been a regular guest expert on The Dr. Oz Show covering topics such as weight loss, gut and digestive health, and herbal medicine. He is also the co-founder of BurstFIT training program alongside his wife, Chelsea.
As the other half and co-founder of BurstFIT interval training program, Chelsea is also the face of each workout. Her program combines functional body weight exercises, Tabatas, weight lifting, and HIIT cardio. She encourages proper posture to reduce the risk of injury throughout lifting and daily tasks. Her focus relies heavily on exercise technique and she thoroughly teaches functional movements while also incorporating them into all of her specialized programs. She is proficient in Olympic weightlifting standards as well.
Besides Chelsea’s contributions to BurstFIT workout demos, videos and programming, she is also experienced in a plethora of health and wellness categories and contributes to the website, draxe.com. She is an expert in the field of natural health, cross-training and nutrition.
Chelsea has coached and participated on the junior olympic volleyball team, where she played at nationals for consecutive years. Specifically working with athletes is her favorite because of her own experience in sports and her passion to push thresholds to another level. Because of her nutrition and programming skills, she is adept in developing specific programs catered to individuals goals.
Both Drs. Josh and Chelsea Axe have worked with a variety of individuals. From triathletes and weight lifters, to families and young athletes, they continue to make health and wellness not only a priority, but also a positive, life-changing, convenience for each and every person interested in their methods.
They run a world-wind schedule, pacted with media, websites, guest appearances, product examples, YouTube videos, and supplement content. “Chelsea is at the forefront of our fitness brand, BurstFIT, and most all videos on social media,” Josh conveys. Right now, he says his focus is more on the nutrition side of things, while Chelsea is more involved with fitness.
Josh was born in Troy, Ohio, where he grew up playing soccer among other sports. He joined the triathlon team in college at the University of Kentucky, and worked as a personal trainer during his academic stay. He has spent the majority of his life and education learning about health and wellness, but that is all because of an unfortunate diagnosis when he was a child. He claims his inspiration on medicine and natural health came from a health crisis in his family. He explains, “When I was young, my mom was my gym teacher in elementary school and my swim teacher. My dad was a semi-pro water skier and lifted weights a lot.” So when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 40, he says the family was not only surprised, but followed into the traditional medical route for treatments.
“We lived in the medical model,” Josh further explains, “When you get sick you go get medicine from the doctor.” And although his mother went through chemotherapy and was diagnosed as cancer free, he says she was sicker now more than ever. “She was always on medicine,” he remembers. From that she developed things like thyroid issues, and this type of cycle would continue for close to ten years. “It triggered something in me,” he says. “I watched her age years in a matter of weeks, as a side effect of the chemotherapy. Her face was sunken, and she looked defeated. Even as a kid, I remember thinking there had to be a better way than this just to stay alive,” he describes.
Witnessing his mother’s health decline made him rethink his own ideas, even at a young age. At 14, he says he decided to stop drinking sodas. He recalls, “I didn’t know a lot about nutrition, but I knew soda was bad.” Small steps may seem simple, but it built significant habits and that mindset would follow him his whole life, dictating his actions, eventually leading him into the industry he’s now in today.
Josh’s first involvement in fitness was structured more toward body building methods, however, between eventually participating in triathlons and having a clean diet, someone suggested his interests might best fit chiropractic school. Josh says, “I realized with that degree I could practice functional medicine, nutrition, chiropractic and work as a natural physician, among other certifications.” The idea of following this academic path allowed him much more freedoms with medicine.
During his last year in college, his mom called to say, yet again, she had some bad news. She said she had been diagnosed with cancer again and this time it was in her lungs. He flew home and just so happened to be studying specifics on natural medicine. He encouraged his mother to try an all natural route. So they started juicing, drinking bone broth, eating mushrooms, incorporating turmeric, essential oils, and worked on her mind set for four months. In her next visit, the doctor found that the tumors had shrunk in half.
Josh boasts, “13 years later she is in the best shape of her life, completely cancer free.” This experience, he says, “drove me to practice the way I practice and use food as medicine.” He believes in wellness care as more of a preventative measure and opposed to our traditional doctor visits, in which MDs are forced to react to immediate sick care.
Chelsea experienced a much different path. As an athlete her whole life, she was on track to play volleyball for the next four years of college and had a few options as to where she wanted to go. Not according to plan, she tore her ACL and meniscus her senior year in high school. Without having signed any documents defining her future, all the offers on the table immediately fell threw.
With a new and unknown future to look forward to, Chelsea only knew she wanted to somehow be involved with sports. “I didn’t have any experience inside the fitness industry, outside of specific sports,” she admits. Racking her brain between athletic professions like physical therapy or additional years of med school, “I eventually decided I wanted to be an ER doctor,” she said. But looking back, she cringes at the version of a “healthy” lifestyle she thought she was living. For example, her diet was above the average college student, but she would have cottage cheese and fruit for breakfast, “but then I was drinking three energy drinks a day,” she shakes her head. “I didn’t have a real nutrition understanding even though my diet was still better than most.”
She had plans of heading to medical school but kept finding herself venturing to the web page of Life University in Atlanta, where a relative had suggested she look. Chelsea had her things moved from Minnesota to Georgia within a matter of weeks and was attending Life University, a leading chiropractic and holistic health university where she quickly fell in love – with her education. She says, “Being in chiropractic school, you are so much more immersed in the actual education of real nutrition.”
Fitness outside of organized sports was still new to Chelsea, so she did what she thought was healthy – run. Running became her routine until she found a group of friends doing, what she looks back on as Crossfit workouts, or at least another version of HIIT with a competitive edge. “After that I started trying out everything. Exploring the different avenues of fitness opened up a whole new realm of education and understanding.”
Josh happened to have started a practice in Nashville around the time Chelsea was looking for school credit. “I found him on his website and thought he was cute,” she laughs. “I told my best friend we needed to go to Nashville and shadow just for the day.” So she made the short drive from Atlanta to shadow Josh for the final stages of her degree. Although she was only there for one day during business hours, they ended up talking the majority of the time.
The funny part of the story, however, is her puppy, Oakley, was only ten weeks old when she went to shadow Josh in Nashville. “I couldn’t leave him,” she says. “When they are that little and just a baby, you can’t just leave them. So I had to bring him with me.” As Chelsea tells the story she glances over, “And Josh hated dogs.”
“I didn’t love dogs,” Josh says immediately. “I’m not going to argue that, I guess. But here is why. Let me tell you the story,” he insists. So he explains, “Growing up, our neighbors had this overweight, black lab, that just smelled.” And as everyone in the room laughs, Josh is dead serious. “The dog would find me!” he claims, “This is how labs are. They find the person that doesn’t want to be close to them and they just pester them.” He looks down but is smiling and says, “Because of that, I didn’t like most dogs.”
“Well, it wasn’t good for me that he saw I had a dog, seeing as I had to bring Oakley with me,” Chelsea says. And they tease that Josh would think, ‘Yes, she’s cute, but she has that dog, so it’s not going to work.’ And Chelsea claims, “It was actually a red flag.”
“Well, yeah,” Josh admits, “Yeah, it was a red flag.”
Obviously, Josh finally caved in and Chelsea remembers, “It wasn’t for another two months that he reached out to me because he was in Atlanta.” With a base of communication established, it was really one of the following trips to Nashville that Oakley will never forget. Staying with friends that just so happen to be living with Josh, Chelsea brought Oakley along again and placed him in his kennel.
Josh recalls, “I came home and this dog was in a cage, in my laundry room. I thought, ‘who would leave this dog in this cage?’ ‘What dog would rather be in this cage than outside in the backyard?’ So I let him outside.”
“He was ten weeks old!” Chelsea exclaims, “And it was January!” And while Josh agrees to the timeline, he clarifies the temperature was only 50 degrees in Nashville. Then he reluctantly adds to the story, “Well anyway,” he sheepishly starts, “I had to leave for some reason and I guess it started raining.” Chelsea says when she came home, little, baby Oakley was standing at the door just crying and begging and wet.
Nevertheless, once the two actually started dating, Josh is sure that Oakley got him back. “I planted a garden,” he begins.
“He was really excited about it,” Chelsea chimes in, laughing.
“I was so excited about it.” Josh agrees. “I had raspberry bushes, blueberry bushes, pumpkin squash and tomato. Then I came back one day and the entire thing was wiped out! He didn’t even dig it up.” Josh reveals. “He just tore off every bud, like he knew what he was doing. He literally snapped every little twig.” And while the room is full of laughter again, Oakley lays comfortably sprawled out on the large couch, looking as adorable and innocent as ever. But Josh looks at him and adds, “Oh yeah, he got me back.”
But seven years later, both Oakley and Josh have worked out a way to share Chelsea. Although, now they have both Oakley and Flash, so it’s safe to say Josh has warmed up to idea of them as pets. They do try and take the dogs on as many activities as they can, but Josh gets his alone time for couples workouts in the gym. “We don’t get competitive,” he says, “but Chelsea likes to instruct you on your last rep,” he jokes and Chelsea laughs.
“But she really is a great trainer,” he says. Josh appreciates her instruction mostly because so many trainers today aren’t focused on technique or trained in proper movement. “She really is good at knowing biomechanics and functional movements,” he brags on her, “She has a lot of knowledge on proper form and technique.”
Despite their busy lifestyle, they’re a couple that truly enjoys life together. The two deeply value their relationship with God and each other, they host and entertain friends and family, which keeps them grounded and gives them the chance to try new recipes. Both Josh and Chelsea are as good in the kitchen as they are in the gym. Overall, what they love the most is sharing. Whether it be meals, blog posts, workouts, or a natural medicine approach, they both have an inherent need to share their knowledge and experiences. They share a passion for investing in other people’s health.
Too often we get swept up in our businesses and forget to reap what we’ve sown. It is good to see successful, hard-working people still loving one another and the life they have created. Chelsea and Josh balance each other in this way. More recently, they split time between their home and business in Tennessee and their newly finished house in Florida. Both love the sand, outdoors, and sunshine, so checking off the beach house from the bucket list was a long time goal they are happy to finally settle into. After a lot of hard work, it’s time they enjoy some of the benefits.
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