North Carolina

4 years after paralyzing wreck, Raleigh restaurateur vows: ‘This will not be my life’

Sarah Santoro Thor kisses her husband, Michael Thor, as they both leave for work from their downtown Raleigh apartment on July 1, 2019. Thor is able to navigate the sidewalks by himself with his powered wheelchair to get to his restaurant, Whiskey Kitchen, nearby.
Whiskey Kitchen’s Michael Thor was in a motorcycle crash in 2015 that left him a quadriplegic. But he has made gains in his recovery: “I will get out of this chair.”

Michael Thor’s last memory of his old life is turning his motorbike left on North Person Street in downtown Raleigh.

When he woke up in WakeMed Hospital, his right arm was torn apart, six of his ribs were broken, a lung had collapsed. Most severely, he had a crack on his C2 vertebrae and a spinal cord bruise — a mark on his body dividing his life in two.

Nearly four years ago, on Nov. 20, 2015, he was in a motorcycle crash that left him a quadriplegic. A year ago, the co-owner of Whiskey Kitchen returned to Raleigh after a few years at a rehabilitation center in Atlanta, to stitch together the life he had planned with what his life had become.

Because on the other side of a life upended is a life that goes on.

“All your physical abilities have been stripped away from you, and all you have is your mind and mentality that this will not be my life,” said Michael, now 36, who is known as Mike or Thor.

The once larger-than-life daredevil now has some degree of feeling throughout his body. But his movement is limited, he can’t breathe completely on his own, and he requires near-constant care.

The chef who prided himself on leading by example, whether cooking on the line for hours or unclogging the toilet, now leads his dream restaurant from the perch of his motorized wheelchair.

Still, he is ready to prove the doctors wrong — those who told him he might never walk again. These days, he is usually in one of three places: in the downtown Raleigh apartment he shares with his wife; at the restaurant, where he plays an active role as a manager; or at physical therapy.

Through the pain, he works daily to regain the abilities lost in the crash, incrementally moving toward his goal of walking through the doors of the business he helped build — on his own terms. Those goals float out in front of him as fixed points on an unending journey, but his gains provide hope for even more. They help give him purpose.

In what should be considered a major symbol of independence, he can make the trip to the restaurant on his own in the wheelchair. With the assistance of a walker, he can take a few steps.

“I will get out of this chair eventually,” he said. “No telling how long it will take, but I work as if next month I’ll get out of the chair.”

Beyond the physical challenges, Mike grapples with who he used to be, making peace with where he’s at in his recovery. A sticker reading “It is what it is” is on the front of his wheelchair. It’s not a motto, or even a philosophy. It’s just the truth as Thor knows it.

But he’s not finished.

Roots of an adrenaline junkie

When Mike was 1 year old, he pitched all of his stuffed animals over the side of his crib, climbed over the railing and dropped down on their soft, smiling faces. His parents found him that way in the middle of the night, stuffing his face with Oreos.

That was the moment he said he learned that the confines of anything were an illusion. The bars of the crib were in the way, but only until he found a way over. The limits of time and space were more bound by what a body could learn, and a body could learn just about anything.

When he was a teen at Cary High School, he was one of the kids rollerblading in parking garages, jumping off the tops of steps, or over cars to the level below. He’d show his mother, Karen, the videos he made with his friends. Today, she admits a kind of anxious wonder.

“That is so cool,” she told him. “How do you do something like that?”

You do it in pieces, he told her, step by step, and then put it all together, your body trained and familiar with something it shouldn’t be able to do. Like a learned superpower.

“He was always that huge risk-taker,” Karen said.

At 30, buoyed by a few drinks, Mike and a friend climbed to the top of a bridge crossing the Ohio River. When a slow-moving train passed underneath, Mike figured they could jump on it, land on a pile of coal and slide down to a gentle stop. Easy. He counted to three, and his body did exactly what he imagined it would do.

“That’s the way I lived my life, you know,” Mike said. “I had to climb the tallest thing. I was a total adrenaline junkie. It’s just like any other drug. You do it enough times, and you have to get more and more. I went skydiving on my 18th birthday and it was not a rush for me at all, because I was strapped to someone else. I knew it was going to be fine.”

The crash

Having no memory of the crash continues to nag Mike. The day of the accident was the Friday before Thanksgiving. Mike and his wife, Sarah Santoro Thor, met for lunch downtown at Sosta Cafe. By mid-afternoon, they left separately, she going home and him heading to a friend’s house. They both took North Person Street heading out of downtown as it turns into Wake Forest Road, but she was ahead of him.

The bike he was riding the day of the crash was supposed to be the safe one. Everyone was happy when he had traded in his first bike the year before — the one he had taken up to 130 mph, the one that even he didn’t trust himself not to try and push faster — for the smaller bike that could only get up to 70 mph. He saw the new bike as an act of maturity, something sensible to drive around town.

Though the seconds before a tragedy tick off like any other, they linger there in memories, as if they could be sifted through with history swayed one way or the other. Maybe a different route home or a different time of day.

Sarah remembers everything about the day before the crash, but holds on to their goodbye.

“I remember telling him I loved him,” said Sarah, who has been married to Mike six years.

The Raleigh Police Department’s report fills in some of the answers. According to the report, a car driven by a 25-year-old woman hit Mike’s 2012 Sanyang motorcycle about 3:30 p.m. while moving from the left lane into the right lane, just past the intersection of Glascock Street. Both were moving the speed limit of 30 mph, the report said.

The impact knocked his body 21 feet — headfirst into a light pole on the right side of the road. His helmet caved in, the bike shattered, but his face seemed nearly untouched.

The driver, in a 2003 Lexus, was cited with unsafe lane change, the report said. Mike was given a drug test, which came back positive. He said he had taken prescription pills, but was not charged.

Sarah didn’t find out about the accident until two hours later, when two police officers knocked on her door.

When Mike came to in WakeMed, Sarah said it took time to process the news. On the surface, he didn’t look severely injured.

“It took a long time to wrap around, him being in such a serious condition,” she said. “He looked fine. His arm was banged up, but he wasn’t bruised on his face. I mean, you’d think, you hit something with your head like that, that there’d be more trauma to your face and body. He just looked like he was asleep.”

Since the crash was before the holiday, the hospital waiting room was filled with far-flung friends already in town.

“I was surrounded by friends immediately,” Mike said.

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Spinal cord recovery

Mike’s initial prognosis was grim: Mike was unlikely to ever walk or function normally again.

Doctors told the family Mike was lucky to be alive.

The diagnosis was a fracture of the C2 vertebrae, a high break on the second bone of the spinal cord, near the nape of the neck. That typically means near-total paralysis. But Mike’s vertebrae didn’t break. Instead, his spinal cord was squeezed by swelling around his spine, a condition known as central cord syndrome.

There’s no timetable for spinal cord injuries, and the Thors have been told “everyone heals differently,” a line they’re forced to cling to on the good days and the bad.

“We’re all beautiful snowflakes,” Mike said last fall after a rehab workout, with a tinge of sarcasm.

After a few weeks in Raleigh, Mike was transferred to Atlanta’s Shepherd Center, one of the country’s top hospitals for spinal cord injuries. The Thors moved to Atlanta indefinitely. Sarah pushed pause on her marketing career, only recently returning to freelance work. His father, Karl, a pharmaceutical executive, and Karen, a banking executive, also relocated.

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Next Step Raleigh director of training Arlene Peters, left, and activity based trainer David Wright, right, work with Mike Thor to stand up and take steps during one of his therapy sessions at Next Step Raleigh on Dec. 6, 2018. Thor is determined to walk again and pushes himself through multiple therapy sessions a week. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Slowly, Mike worked on rebuilding strength and ability in his arms and legs.

When he wiggled his toes on Day 39, Mike and Sarah initially dismissed it as spasms. But when the therapist who noticed the movement asked him to try it again on command, everyone was shocked.

By the third month, he was kicking a leg straight out and back down.

But the gains were still rough and unpredictable. He could lift his arm, but still couldn’t move his fingers. Worst of all he couldn’t scratch his face — an annoying kind of agony.

The reality of spinal cord injuries is the victims are often just starting out in life, said neurologist Dr. Muhammad Abd-El-Barr of Duke University Medical Center. Abd-El-Barr, an assistant professor of neurosurgery, focuses on spinal cord injuries and spine disorders; he is not treating Thor.

A life of promise is suddenly and violently altered, and the consequences echo for decades. And not just physically or emotionally. The lifetime expenses for a 25-year-old suffering a high spinal cord injury are more than $5 million, according to data from the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“Spinal cord injuries are unfortunately a tragic event,” Abd-El-Barr said. “It mostly affects people who are younger, who have a whole life to live, suddenly stops them in their tracks. It’s also devastating for loved ones, because often this person will need care for the rest of their lives.”

There are a number of hopeful treatments and technological advancements, Abd-El-Barr said, but younger patients pursuing aggressive rehab typically tend to fare best.

Physical therapy gains

That was the thought last September, when Karen opened a local franchise of the non-profit physical therapy chain NextStep, allowing her son to come home from Atlanta. She made her career in finance, first in banks and then selling banking software, but she felt compelled to join her son in his fight.

“It was something I had to do,” Karen said. “Mike needed to come home for Whiskey Kitchen. At some point you have to and you want to come home.”

But her biggest fear, she said, was that he would quickly lose any of the gains he had made in Atlanta. She runs the center on the western edge of Hillsborough Street, with about a dozen clients, in addition to her son, all recovering from some kind of spinal cord injury or physically debilitating illness.

He works out three to four times per week, rebuilding and retraining his body to do the things it used to do. Just like any bodybuilder, he has leg days and arm days. It’s been more arm days than legs recently, as he sees movement in his arms as the quickest route to independence.

“It will inevitably be at therapy that my ability comes back,” he said. “One of the frustrating things about this injury is I don’t know where I’m going to be. It could be a few months from now that something clicks and all of a sudden my arms are able to move.”

Time is marked somewhat differently after the accident, based more on the state of his body than trips around the sun. The tough days are the ones where his mind drifts to everything else on the side.

“My positivity is geared towards knowing I’m going to get out of this chair,” Mike said. “That’s where my positivity is focused. Not where I’m going to be in a year. So we’re planning for the worst, but hoping for the best. But I do know I’m getting out of this chair.”

Mike has always been skinny, but since the accident his body is even more thin. He keeps a trim beard that on occasion morphs into a horseshoe mustache, paired with a Mohawk stripe across his scalp.

Hip-hop blares as Mike does squats and lifts, walks a dozen labored steps and raises his arms. Each movement looks like a struggle against an enormous weight, but is really his own body and gravity, as he pushes toward what he needs it to be.

His legs are strong, able to push himself up on a squat machine and quiver and shake through a few lightly supported steps. At the end of a good session, he is sweaty and exhausted, inching ever closer to his ultimate goal.

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Karen Thor, center, watches as her son, Michael Thor, left, works with activity based trainer David Wright at Next Step Raleigh on Dec. 6, 2018. Karen Thor opened the local franchise of the non-profit physical therapy chain NextStep, enabling Michael to come home from Atlanta and work out multiple times per week. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Insurance pays for about 36 sessions per year, which Mike uses up in a little more than a month. He works out at the center several times a week.

Karen worries about the financial burdens of therapy for her son, or for anyone with a spinal cord injury. But she knows continued therapy is crucial to a person’s recovery.

“What does he do the rest of the year? Sit there and get worse?” she said. “That’s what (spinal cord patients) do. They don’t even stay where they are, they get worse. They lose all their muscle mass, coordination they’ve gained. Cardiovascularly they get way worse, there’s diabetes, pneumonia.

“Not only do they not get function back, their whole body starts to fall apart.”

Mike said therapy has made the return to Raleigh possible.

“It will inevitably be at therapy that that ability comes back,” he said.

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Sarah Santoro Thor blows on her husband’s eggs before feeding him in their downtown Raleigh apartment on July 1, 2019. The couple who have thrived on leading physically active and separate lives have now had to learn how to live a new life together after Michael Thor’s motorcycle accident. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

A marriage tested

In their mid-30s, the Thors have stared into the depths of what love can bear.

In some ways, Sarah’s body was also in that crash. After Mike’s accident, Sarah started viewing her own body differently. She said she was always conscious of health and fitness, but her limbs and lungs and beating heart suddenly seemed more precious, not just for herself, but in her new role as a caregiver.

“This body is the only one we get,” Sarah said. “Watching this happen, I’m just grateful that I have what I have, so I want to take care of it. We try to be very healthy and I exercise a lot, because this needs to be at optimal performance so I can support him, but also because that’s what it’s supposed to do.”

Sarah said she burned out in the two years following the accident, feeling Mike’s care was her sole responsibility. Now she takes a week to herself every month. Earlier this year she took a month, the longest she had been away from Mike since they started dating more than a decade ago.

In some ways, she feels she’s started to absorb his personality, becoming something of a vessel for the pieces of himself he no longer could use. When she took up skateboarding and was kicked out of a parking garage, Mike said he’d never been prouder, but also didn’t want her to feel she had to live his life for him.

“I just want her to be happy,” Mike said.

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A photo of Michael Thor, right, waterskiing with his wife, Sarah Santoro Thor, in their downtown Raleigh apartment. The couple who have thrived on leading physically active lives have now had to learn how to live a new life together after Michael Thor’s motorcycle accident. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

The small affections aren’t as easy as they use to be, but they’re there. In an interview, when Sarah begins to cry, Mike’s stronger right hand comes to life and reaches out to her. She pulls his fingers apart and intertwines them with hers.

The question of having children still lingers. Sarah hasn’t answered the question for herself, she said, but Mike has said “no.”

“It is not an option; it’s a no-go if I can’t hug my child and hold my baby,” Mike said. “I have a lot of wisdom I’d like to impart — on my friends’ kids. I think I would have raised kids who were really good adults. They might have been maniacs through their teens, but I grew up to be a pretty solid adult.”

Sarah says it would be irresponsible to explore the expensive reproductive methods needed for people with spinal cord injuries, in addition to ongoing rehab.

“Whiskey (Kitchen) is his baby now,” she said.

Whiskey Kitchen’s influence

While the Shepherd Center in Atlanta worked out Mike’s body, Raleigh — and Whiskey Kitchen — helped him recover his soul. He came back to the restaurant, back to family and friends and the close-knit restaurant community, instead of some in-between. The restaurant gave him purpose.

“They coincide: wellness of my body and the wellness of my brain,” Mike said. “(Whiskey Kitchen) keeps me occupied, which is important. If I’m not thinking about work, I’m thinking about this situation.”

Raleigh’s restaurant community has a way of lending a hand, and they have come together for Mike in the aftermath of his accident. Fundraisers have been held; donations have poured in from breweries and businesses, collectively raising more than $50,000. More recently, fundraisers have directed funds to NextStep.

An office job was never going to be the life for Mike. In restaurant kitchens, he found something he could do with his hands, a love of working the line, of feeling sweaty and exhausted, cranking out hours of dishes and the bliss of a post-shift beer.

He spent five years with PoshNosh Catering in Raleigh, working more than ever. At the holidays, Mike said they would count on working 120-hour weeks, three weeks straight in one delirious blur. He loved the grind.

Whiskey Kitchen would be the first restaurant of his own, with co-owner Jeff Mickel, an idea that started as a small bourbon bar and gathered momentum into a raucous bar with solid food, right in the heart of Raleigh.

While Mike was in Atlanta, Whiskey Kitchen opened in the summer of 2016 without him. Longtime friend and co-worker Clayton Anderson took his place as executive chef and Jonathan Botta worked as chef de cuisine.

Looking out on Nash Square in the middle of the city, Whiskey Kitchen — a former car shop in a nearly century-old building — can feel like Raleigh’s front porch. In the summer, when the patio is full and the garage doors are open, air-conditioned air luxuriously pours out into the swelter, along with the drum beats of second and third drinks.

The restaurant just celebrated its third anniversary and is currently working on a kitchen expansion.

Mike is proud of what the restaurant has become, a vision he helped start, but that has been realized largely without him. Even in Atlanta, he’d call into managers meetings, the restaurant always a part of his life. But his role is different than he imagined for his first restaurant, forced to trade his love for being in the kitchen for something more conceptual.

He now spends days in manager meetings and tackling other administrative tasks. He worries his leadership style — where no job is too small for him — has been taken away from him. Now if something physical needs to be done, he has to ask someone else.

Anderson said the fear is unfounded. There’s a reverence for Mike from the restaurant’s staff, but also a respect, Anderson said.

“Having Mike back has been huge,” Anderson said. “For me personally, it’s been rejuvenating. Mike is just inspiring. .... I think it’s tough for him to not be in there and getting his hands dirty, but there are so many other things he does for Whiskey Kitchen.”

Now that he’s back, he spends most days in the restaurant, commuting a few blocks from his downtown apartment in his motorized wheelchair.

He gives Raleigh pretty good marks for wheelchair accessibility, but some pitfalls remain. People with spinal cord injuries are prone to muscle spasms, which the bumpy brick sidewalks can set off.

Sometimes he’ll pull up to Whiskey Kitchen with his legs bouncing uncontrollably, but he doesn’t dare go inside. He keeps his chair out of view and pushes on his legs as hard as he can, like slamming on the brakes of a car, and the spasms will quiet. Then he can go inside and be the boss.

“I don’t want to be seen like that in my establishment,” he said.

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“I will walk through these doors,” says Michael Thor, a co-owner of Whiskey Kitchen, on Dec. 21, 2019. Thor is learning to manage in a new way after a motorcycle accident four years ago left him with an injury to his spinal cord. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

New pathways

Life in a chair keeps him in an odd in-between, taller than anyone sitting, shorter than anyone standing. Yet, somehow Mike’s personality is always the biggest in the room.

His sense of humor remains intact, though it has taken on a gallows theme. For Halloween one year, he dressed up like a zombie and captioned a photo on Instagram “The Rolling Dead.” He documents parts of his recovery on Instagram with a handle of “The Crippled Cook.”

When he sees a trainer he’s never worked with before, he will feign a fall, only to catch himself and grin at the frantic look on their face.

“It’s who I am,” Mike said. “It’s who I was, it’s who I will always be. I have days where I’m super-depressed and spend the day crying, but that has to be short-lived. It can’t go to a second day.

“To go a day and feel sorry for myself and neglect everything and everybody, I’ve got to get in that chair and go to a managers meeting and go to therapy.”

At home, three posters of the human body hang on a wall: the nervous, skeletal and muscular systems. There’s an elasticity to the human body, a forgiveness, and in spite of Mike’s constraints and struggles, the posters hang on the wall like works of art.

When a patient makes physical gains, he doesn’t reclaim something lost, but instead charts a new path, said Abd-El-Barr, the Duke neurosurgeon.

“We don’t use all the pathways in the spinal cord,” Abd-El-Barr said. “We use certain pathways, when we’re born some pathways start developing and other pathways are neglected. Some of the recovery we see after spinal cord injury, you’re tapping into those unused pathways.”

Mike said the final exorcism of the crash that changed his life will be getting back on a motorcycle, at least once.

“I’m not going to tell you when I do, but one day I’m going to get on a motorcycle again,” he tells his mother.

“I’ll kill you,” Karen replies.

“That’s why I’m not going to tell you,” he said.

The “why?” is more complicated than it appears. It’s not a particular love of motorcycles or recklessness, though Mike speaks romantically about being wrapped by the wind flowing around his body.

A motorcycle put him in his wheelchair and changed his life.

He’s not going to let that be the end of the story.

“I can’t be scared,” Mike said. “I’m really not scared of a lot of things — being buried alive — but I’m not scared of being hurt. I’m ready to jump back on right now. The last time I was on a motorcycle it ended in disaster.

“It’s important to know I can ride again and it won’t end in disaster.”

How to help

To contribute to Michael Thor’s recovery, go to helphopelive.org/campaign/12623/.

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Drew Jackson writes about restaurants and dining for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, covering the food scene in the Triangle and North Carolina.
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