NY teacher, US Coast Guard member who lost an eye won’t allow ‘freak accident’ to define his life
A New York community is rallying around a beloved educator after he suffered a terrifying accident and lost vision in one of his eyes.
Thomas “TJ” Foley, a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve and an automotive shop teacher in Long Island, was in his garage on Oct. 1 polishing a piece of metal when the machinery he was using exploded, his wife Christina Sabbiondo told Fox News Digital.
Since then, family and friends have been doing what they can to help Foley as he recovers from the horrible incident.
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“The support and the fundraiser page that was set up for me, it’s just an incredible thing to have all these people looking out for you,” Foley, 41, told Fox News Digital.
“It means a lot to me. It helps take a lot of weight off Christina’s shoulders since she’s had to worry about my day-to-day, plus taking care of me. It’s tough.”
Sabbiondo, who is also a teacher, said that on the day of the “life-altering” accident, she was doing some schoolwork inside the couple’s home while he worked in the garage.
“He was preparing a piece of tubing for an off-roading Jeep,” she said.
“He was using a bench grinder, so it essentially has 2 sides to it. On one side a stone wheel rotates and the other side has a wire wheel on it. He was using the side with the wire wheel.”
Sabbiondo said Foley was operating the machine when suddenly a “loud explosion” occurred. Foley was wearing the necessary protective eye gear and following the appropriate safety protocols.
“He doesn’t remember much else,” she added. “He blacked out very briefly, and he was able to get out of the garage to call for me.”
“At the time I just saw a very deep gash in his head — a lot of blood, and I called 911,” Sabbiondo said.
“He kept looking in the mirror because he couldn’t see … At the time of the accident he could only see a little white light from the corner of his eye.”
Foley was taken to the hospital; doctors determined his eye was severely injured.
He underwent surgery, led by neuro-ophthalmology specialists and plastic and reconstructive surgeons.
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In total, he underwent roughly four surgeries that night, Sabbiondo said.
“I had no idea it was going to be that bad,” she said. “I was hoping he wouldn’t lose his vision. He always takes such good care of his eyes and then this happened. It was a really hard hit for him.”
Doctors said that when the machine exploded, the protective eye gear Foley was wearing did save his life — though the pressure against his head was so severe that he still lost his vision, according to Sabbiondo.
“He’s a good person — totally didn’t deserve for this to happen to him,” she said.
“Safety is his number-one thing,” she said. “Protection saved his life — [it] just didn’t save his eye.”
Doctors inserted titanium plates to reconstruct Foley’s upper eye socket and his cheek. He experienced fractures in his lower socket as well, plus a skull fracture.
He now has a non-seeing eye and will be set up to have a prosthetic.
“It’s a lot to process,” Sabbiondo said.
“When he was in the hospital, he was most upset about [the vision loss], but at the same time, he had no idea [that] he could’ve died. I’m just thankful, and he is too, that he’s still alive — no brain damage … He has a major concussion,” she added. “Doctors are amazed with how he’s healing.”
Sabbiondo and Foley have been married for 11 years. The pair met at Queens College in New York, where they were both studying to become teachers.
“Everyone keeps telling TJ that he owes me and that I’m a trooper, but for me there is no other way,” Sabbiondo said. “TJ is my everything. He owes me nothing because I know he would do the same for me. He is my best friend — and I’m just so grateful that I didn’t lose him.”
She went on, “What good would it do anyone if I cried all the time? Nothing will give him his sight back. I have to be strong for him and us. All we can do is adapt together and overcome.”
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Sabbiondo said her husband is loved by the students he teaches at Freeport High School in Freeport, New York.
Even during his recovery, Foley has been asking Sabbiondo to check in with the school to ensure his students are being taken care of and are well.
“He likes to help them succeed,” Sabbiondo said. “He likes to be a positive male role model for them.”
She added, “They really look up to him. He’ll tell me sometimes they want to stay in his shop and not go to their other classes.”
She went on, “He’s a great husband and he would do anything for me. He keeps thanking me and telling me he’s sorry this happened.”
Since the accident, students have been sending get-well letters to Foley.
In addition, friends, family and neighbors have raised more than $14,000 to help cover Foley’s medical bills through a fundraising site, helpacop.com.
Drew Vukov, a friend of Foley’s who served in the same Coast Guard unit with him for 10 years, helped lead the charge in collecting donations.
“I don’t want him to worry about any bill, any loss of income,” sails Vukov, a supervisory symptoms border and protection officer, about Foley.
“He has insurance, but I know it won’t cover everything. I wanted him to focus on getting better and healing and take the financial aspect or any negative issues away from it.”
Vukov and members of the U.S. Coast Guard have been stopping by Foley’s home to bring over food and lend a hand with landscaping and household chores.
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“He’s a very well-liked friend,” Vukov told Fox News Digital.
“The reason why this is so easy to do is, had the situation been reversed, he’d be there for us — so, it’s deserving.”
Foley said his ultimate goal is to reach a point where it seemed this incident never happened.
“I don’t know if that’s possible, but I’m not going to let this freak accident define the rest of my life,” he said.
“It’s just amazing how in one second your whole life can change.”
Vukov said all funds donated via helpacop.com/product/tj-needs-our-help will go directly to Foley.
Foley is a veteran and active reserve member of the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, currently serving as a machinery technician 2nd class — an MK2 — at Station Shinnecock in Hampton Bays, New York.