What’s stopping you? Northeast Campus Department Chair recovers from life-threatening accident with determination, humor

Ken Moak has spent the better part of a year recovering from an accident that shattered his leg, cracked his vertebrae and ribs, lacerated his kidney, bruised his heart, knocked out his teeth and broke his pelvis, jaw, upper palate, sinuses, nose and eye orbit. But he calls himself lucky.

“As lucky as you can be under the circumstances,” explained Moak, associate professor and department chair of Computer Science & Information Technology at Tarrant County College’s Northeast Campus. “Most of the injuries are mendable. I didn’t suffer any permanent spine damage or lose any internal organs.”

The story began just after midnight on Nov. 20, 2015. Moak was headed to work on his farmhouse east of Waco after a fire damaged the home. As he drove down Interstate 35 in Burleson, a signal truck flashed, indicating the closure of the left lane. Moak says a pickup came up fast and hit the signal truck from behind—then spun across traffic before hitting the guardrail.

Moak pulled over and called 911. A former scuba instructor, he had gone through TCC’s Emergency Medical Technician Program as a precaution. Though his certification was not active, Moak exited his car to see if he could provide any assistance until first responders arrived. Both drivers were okay, but Moak knew it was a dangerous situation—the pickup was partially in the roadway and obscured by darkness. Moak made his way toward the guardrail so he could get out of harm’s way.

He never had the chance to get there.

A car crashed into the wrecked pickup, sending it flying into Moak. The impact knocked him out of his shoes and threw him 30 feet.

“I remember getting hit,” said Moak. “The amount of force was amazing. Then I blacked out.”

Help was already on the way. Without knowing it, Moak had summoned his own ambulance when he reported the original accident.

He regained consciousness as medics transported him to Fort Worth’s John Peter Smith Hospital, the nearest Level I trauma center. He had more than 10 breaks in his leg alone, and the bone protruded through the skin. Moak’s heart hit his ribs with such intensity that it was like he’d experienced a heart attack. He compares his facial injuries to being attacked with a baseball bat.

“If I had been three inches shorter, I would have been brain dead,” Moak noted.

Before going into his first surgery, Moak was able to call his family—which includes his brother, Terry Moak, a police lieutenant at Northeast Campus and mother Vickey Moak, a Northeast Campus retiree. Relatives and friends, including dozens of colleagues, were a constant presence at his hospital bedside. “That made it bearable,” said Moak. “Nearly 70 people came to see me. If you’d asked me before this, I would have guessed I’d have eight to 10 visitors.”

Betty Dalton, assistant professor of Computer Science and Information Technology, was among those who showed support. “It was obvious that Ken had come close to death,” Dalton reflected. “But even on that first afternoon after the accident, he was ready to move forward.”

When Dalton discovered that Moak’s phone had been lost in the chaos, she replaced it so he could communicate with friends and family. That phone also gave Moak the first real glimpse of his injuries. After observing there were no mirrors in his room, he took a selfie and discovered almost 30 pounds of swelling. Friends went from telling him he looked good to comparing him to the Michelin Man. Moak appreciated the laughs.

“Whenever I visited him, Ken was always frank and displayed a spirit to persevere—and his improvement was generally ahead of predictions,” noted Dalton.

As Moak embarked on recovery, so did his department. Dean Charlene Cole called together his colleagues and divided tasks. Everyone pitched in, with finals approaching and staffing for spring classes a priority.

“We work through challenges together,” said Dalton. “We share the load not only for academic efforts but also when facing personal trials.”

After three weeks at John Peter Smith and two weeks at a rehabilitation hospital, Moak finally went home. He still had a lot of healing to do, unable to return to work until the spring semester ended—nearly six months after the accident.

“Ken has shown tremendous courage and work ethic,” said Allen Goben, president of Northeast Campus. “He came back to work as soon as he was cleared by his doctors, diving right back in and tackling things with vigor while juggling his follow-up recovery.”

While recuperating, Moak learned policies and procedures implemented by the vice president for academic affairs who had come on board during his leave. But he wasn’t just catching up; Moak remained committed to growing and developing the department. Following his return, he led TCC in its efforts to become the first public academic institution in Texas approved to offer the Red Hat Certified System Administrator program—providing a new pathway to a well-paying IT career. Moak also updated department systems, enhanced equipment and is working toward a partnership with the International Council of E-Commerce Consultants.

To strengthen his leg, Moak walks the campus more, going to someone’s office instead of making a phone call, for example. While some words remain hard to enunciate, his physical recovery should be complete by January. Friends say Moak’s determination to get better never faltered.

“Yes, there were setbacks along the way,” said Dalton. “Ken just finds a way to get things done.”

Moak didn’t see an alternative. “My physical therapist told me that they have to beg most people to get out of bed. But I can’t imagine giving up. There’s nothing on daytime TV anyway,” he joked.
That sense of humor was instrumental in his recuperation. During one particularly grueling session, Moak told his physical therapist that he would grit his teeth if he had any.

“A lot of what happens is outside our control,” remarked Moak. “You just have to get up and get back after it.”

Support from the TCC community also was restorative.

“I was amazed at the number of people who came to see my brother,” said Lt. Terry Moak. “People coming to the hospital to see Ken would ask for his room number, and the attendant wouldn’t even have to look it up. TCC is like having extended family, and it truly is a great place to have a career.”

For Ken Moak, things are pretty much back as they should be. He is collaborating with colleagues and educating the next generation of IT specialists. In a way, he’s helping train future first responders too. His injuries are now a case study in TCC’s Emergency Medical Services’ Trauma Management class.

Ken Moak’s story is the latest in a series celebrating members of the TCC community who don’t let challenges stop them. Follow these links to read previous features: Salma Alvarez, Celia Mwakutuya, Jessica Caudle