|No Arms, but Feet Will Do To Type, Swim, Even Drive
|Special to the Washington Star
Tom Willis, a University of Maryland sophomore, has learned to write, type, shoot darts, swim and drive
a car – with his feet.
"He's just a fantastic boy," says Rena Graham, a D.C. General Hospital occupa¬tional therapist who
has worked with Wil¬lis since shortly after he was born mys¬teriously without arms. "His handwriting is
better than mine."
His mother, Frances, says, "I often won¬der if he knows how handicapped he is. He can jump off a
high diving board and swim the length of the pool."
E'lise Brown, who taught him to drive, said, "It took him less than two months to learn to drive, he
wanted to speed up the lessons.”
Willis, who lives in Takoma Park with his mother and brother, looked puzzled when a visitor attempted
to explain why people are astonished by his achieve¬ments.
"It is hard for me to understand," he said, scratching his face with two tiny fin¬gers which come out of
an appendage on the upper left side of his body. "The hand¬icap grew up with me. I had to deal with
it. I had to learn to do things with my feet.”
People born without arms are usually encouraged by therapists to develop skills with their feet in
addition to employing mechanical arms. But as a child Tom be¬came so proficient using his feet that
he has never needed "the hooks," as he calls them.
Willis's ability is even more remarkable considering his childhood was a mix of operations, lengthy
hospital stays and as¬sorted ailments.
"I was very sick when I was little," he recalls. "I couldn't keep food down. And I had a difficult time
walking because I couldn't balance. One time I fell down and had to have 28 stitches put in my chin. I
don't remember too much, but my mother had a hard time with me."
At age 6, he was operated on to correct a curvature of the spine. Consequently, he had to wear a
body cast during his first year of school, and a back brace until the seventh grade.
"I remember it was a special treat if I could just take the brace off to eat or sleep," Tom said.
During his four years at Archbishop John Carroll High School, be made the honor roll and ranked
second in his class. He worked for the school's newspaper and yearbook, acted in all major drama
productions, was manager of the school's soccer and softball teams and still had time to be in various
clubs and associa¬tions.
Friends and relatives stress that Willis is iron-willed because of his mother. His father died when Tom
was 15 months old, leaving his mother with what seemed an impos¬sible task, caring for Tom and two
other young children.
"My mother visited Tom in the hospital every day," says Tom's sis¬ter, Kathy, who is 23. "Tom got the
drive to succeed from her. She's an outstanding woman."
Frances Willis, his mother, says .Torn has received "help from many good people." But she reveals
more when she says, "I never hid from anybody. I've never been ashamed of him. I told him that little
kids would stare at him. I tried to stress self-independence to him."
But Mrs. Willis concedes that even she didn't believe her son could ever fulfill a longtime dream – to
drive a car.
"He persisted and kept pressuring me," she said. "I just couldn't pro¬long it. He's so competitive. But,
gee, I got so many gray hairs when he first started."
Says Tom: “I didn’t have to learn to drive. I wanted to. I didn’t want to rely on people anymore. It was
Tom has been driving for over a year now, but his mission to become a licensed driver was not easy.
After learning to drive from E’lise Brown, a driving instructor at the Sharpe Health School in
Washington, his mother drove him to Pasadena, Tex., the home of an inventor who equips cars fir
handicapped people. The cost to transform Willis’s 1977 Maverick: $1,700.
On the floor of the car, the inventor mounted a small disc, which is connected by a hidden chain to the
steering column. Tom steers the car by spinning the disc with his left foot. He controls the brakes and
gas with his right foot, and he hits the turn signals with his knees.
“He’s an excellent driver,” says Brown.
“It’s easy.” Tom says.
Nothing seems impossible for Tom Willis, a radio and television major who has a grade point average
of 3.8 out of a possible 4.0.