Man Who Lost Legs to Boat Propeller Dedicates Life to Helping Kids Get Expensive Prosthetics

"Every kid deserves equal access to their childhood," Jordan Thomas tells PEOPLE in this week's issue

Jordan Thomas lost both his legs about half his life ago — but his passion for helping children overcome similar hardships remains strong.

It was Aug. 16, 2005 when an exuberant Thomas, then 16, jumped into turbulent waters during a fishing trip with his parents in the Florida Keys. Big waves came crashing in, pushing him behind the boat.

Thinking Jordan was a safe distance away, his mother made the split-second decision to fire up the engines and move the boat — but she'd miscalculated.

"The propeller pulled me in," Thomas, now 32, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue.

The unimaginable happened: Thomas' lower legs were sliced off.

"I knew what had happened immediately," he recalls. "As the boat's making its way away from me, I looked down, and my fins were gone. And I saw blood everywhere."

If his parents had not been doctors, Thomas says he would not have survived.

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Jordan Thomas golfing with his girlfriend Koula Callahan at a course near his home in Nashville. Hollis Bennett

At the Miami hospital where he underwent two weeks of treatment and then a week of rehab, he became aware of other children who could not afford the prosthetics Thomas had.

"As I learned more about the life of living with limb loss, I saw a number of kids who didn't have access to prosthetics. I saw a number of kids who didn't have access to proper healthcare," Thomas, now 32, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "I recognized how fortunate and lucky I was to not only not have to worry about the prosthetic coverage side of things, but also to have friends and family around me and support."

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Jordan Thomas. Hollis Bennett

The catalyst for Thomas to take action wasn't a child who suffered from limb loss, but rather an 8-year-old boy in the pediatric wing who sustained third-degree burns over 80% of his body while playing with matches at the orphanage.

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Jordan Thomas with his parents, Liz and Vic, in Washington, D.C., in 2009. Courtesy Jordan Thomas

"He would read the paper and tell me the forecast in Chattanooga, where I lived, and I realized he was in stark contrast to my situation," Thomas says. "He was left all alone to navigate the world, and to me, it was just not acceptable. And when I was wheeling back to my room that first day seeing him, that's when the discussion started about how do we help."

It wasn't enough to write a check. The young man got proactive and researched the topic, soon discovering that any prosthetics beyond the basic legs to allow children to walk were prohibitively expensive. Plus, kids outgrew them every 12-18 months but insurance didn't always cover the necessary upgrades.

For more on Jordan Thomas, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

Insurance most definitely did not cover high-end prosthesis that allowed children to run, jump, swim and ride bikes. Avid golfer Thomas, meanwhile, was allowed to continue to do what he loved because his parents could afford the $24,000 for special golfing legs.

"I can't image being a parent and telling your child that you can't afford that," Thomas says. "Every kid deserves equal access to their childhood."

While still in the hospital, he started the Jordan Thomas Foundation to provide prosthetics for children under 18.

Now, 16 years after he started his foundation, Thomas is working towards fairness in health insurance by lobbying Congress. He's raised millions with his foundation, which currently provides 81 kids with artificial limbs — including three of Alysia Smith's six children.

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In May Jordan Thomas gifted a prosthetic leg to Dylan Leslie, 8, whose limb was amputated due to a congenital condition. Courtesy Jordan Thomas

Her 11-year-old daughter Bella was born missing both legs and part of her left hand. That has not stopped her from swimming, playing the piano, running and horseback riding, all with the help of the special prostheses provided to her through the Jordan Thomas Foundation.

"I can run so fast on my running legs," says Bella, of Satellite Beach, Florida. "It feels like I'm bouncing on a trampoline."

Reflecting on his journey, Thomas says his physical recovery was difficult, but his mental recovery took him to some very dark places.

RELATED VIDEO: Puppy Gets a Prosthetic Leg

"I'm not a superhuman or this big heroic figure. I'm a human being that was dealt some cards and I'm playing those cards as best I can," Thomas says. "It wasn't always smiles and happy-go-lucky. There were times when I was angry and sad, and when I was furious and confused."

"It's been a grind and it's been a battle," he adds. "I've had these moments of absolute bliss and joy and fulfillment. It's the whole spectrum."

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