Turning Setbacks into Success

November 17, 2023

Thea Tantaros (right) poses for a picture with her husband, Keith (left), and their dog in front of their Fifi's Ice Cream truck.

This story first appeared in the Fall 2023 issue of Sweet Charity, a Good Shepherd publication. Learn more.

In the summer of 1989, 20-year-old Thea Tantaros was busy preparing for her senior year at York College while operating her very own ice cream parlor in Schnecksville, Pa.

For a 20-year-old, this may seem like a big responsibility, but this is commonplace for Thea, who comes from a family of restaurateurs. On July 13, Thea was headed to The Peppermint Parlor to open for the day before meeting her mother to shop at the Lehigh Valley Mall. But everything changed when her car hydroplaned on the wet road, sending Thea into a telephone pole, throwing her from the driver’s seat into the passenger side door of her car.

Immediately, Thea was transported to a local hospital where she and her parents received a grim prognosis. Two fractured vertebrae meant that she would be
permanently paralyzed. After two days without feeling in her lower body, doctors performed surgery and were pleasantly surprised to discover that her spinal cord was badly bruised, yet intact.

There was hope for Thea to walk again, but it would not be an easy recovery.

Thea spent the next two weeks in a slow, oscillating hospital bed with a stiff neck brace to stabilize her spinal column. After being discharged, she was sent to Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital for inpatient care. It was then that Thea was hit with the true enormity of her injuries. When she sat in a wheelchair for the first time, depression hit.

At 20 years old, she didn’t know if she would walk again.

Thanks to her will to persevere, love for fitness, prayers from family and friends and daily visits from her mom – who massaged her legs for countless hours to keep the blood flowing – Thea immersed herself in her daily physical therapy sessions.

“Anytime I can give back to Good Shepherd, I will. They gave me my life back, and I am forever grateful.”

Thea Tantaros

Exactly one month after her accident, Thea was at physical therapy, standing between the parallel bars. With her care team’s encouragement, Thea put one foot in front of the other for the first time since the accident. Her care team transitioned her to a walker and then a three-point cane, all before her therapy session ended that day. The cheers from fellow patients and staff filled the room.

As she returned to her wheelchair at the end of her session, she was filled with emotion. She could not get back to her room at Good Shepherd fast enough to call her family and share the great news. With pride and tears of joy, the first person Thea called was her father at their family’s diner in Trexlertown. His joy was evident as he announced throughout the restaurant that his daughter had started to walk.

After three weeks at Good Shepherd, Thea was discharged. She took a semester off of college to focus on outpatient therapy and regaining her strength. After graduating from college with a degree in Business, she entered the workforce. In 2005, she started her own benefits consulting company called BenefitsOne, eventually merging with Equinox Benefits Consulting in 2009, where she continues to work today.

Thea Tantaros holds a chocolate ice cream cone out of the window of her Fifi's Ice Cream truck.

As the years have passed, there are normal residual aches and pains, but they have not stopped Thea from giving it her all in everything she does. “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t count my blessings and acknowledge the great gift I was given to be able to walk again,” Thea said.

In spring 2022, Thea returned to the ice cream business when she opened her side business Fifi’s Ice Cream Truck and Treats with support from her longtime partner and now husband, Keith.

“I owe the majority of my recovery first and foremost to God and the power of prayer, but also to Good Shepherd. They were the special people who really helped me get back on my feet,” Thea said.

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Fifi caters birthday parties, special events and even the July 2023 grand opening of the new Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital in Center Valley.

“Anytime I can give back to Good Shepherd, I will,” Thea said. “They gave me my life back, and I am forever grateful.”

Thea Tantaros (left) walks with her husband, Keith (right), and their dog.