Father fights to keep brain-injured son in Ponoka

A determined father is fighting to rehabilitate his son after a car accident left the young doctor with severe brain injury but the British Columbia government is threatening to cut off funding and bring him home from Ponoka just months after he showed signs of progress.

  • Jan. 12, 2010 6:00 p.m.

By Jasmine Franklin

A determined father is fighting to rehabilitate his son after a car accident left the young doctor with severe brain injury but the British Columbia government is threatening to cut off funding and bring him home from Ponoka just months after he showed signs of progress.

He was a lively 31-year-old doctor fresh out of medical school from British Columbia when a car accident Nov. 3, 2007 in British Columbia forever changed his life and the lives of his family.

“Chris and I were best friends,” his father Kevin Bigelow said. “We did everything together, and the hardest part thing now is that he’s been put in a situation he can’t deal with.”

Chris was riding in the backseat of a car with two other friends — one driving and one in the passenger seat — when the driver of the car fell asleep and veered off the road sending the car into a construction site that ultimately spun the car into a cement wall, over a ravine and onto the roof of a home.

“I’ll never figure it out…Chris never sat in the back seat,” Mr. Bigelow said. “He suffered ‘traumatic brain injury,’ his brain torn in different places.

Chris was rushed to the Royal Columbia Hospital where he spent three months in the intensive care unit. Mr. Bigelow was assured his son would be kept mobile and looked after.

That wasn’t the case.

“One day I noticed he couldn’t straighten his feet anymore,” Mr. Bigelow said. “I thought enough was enough and something had to be done.”

But as it turns out, he was among the few who thought more effort was needed. Mr. Bigelow watched as his son spent one year with no rehabilitation in the Surrey Memorial Hospital. He was told on one occasion that he should just give up.

But that’s far from what this dedicated father and best friend did.

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On March 10, 2009 Chris arrived at the Halvar Jonson Centre for Brain Injury in Ponoka after research deemed the centre the perfect fit. He has made significant progress over the last five months.

“The therapists here really push him to the limit,” Mr. Bigelow said. “They have helped our family deal more effectively with this tragedy…We have made gains we never knew were possible. I want to make sure all the staff at the Halvar Jonson Centre get the full credit for all the work they do day in and day out.”

Since September, Chris’s responsive skills have improved greatly; he can move his eyes, hands, neck and he is able to squeeze hands when being spoken too.

“He’s still there,” Mr. Bigelow said through tear-filled eyes. “Any reaction is a good thing — what we want is to get him to the point where we continue the rehab at home and build with him.”

The biggest fear for this family is that Chris will get put into long-term care where his condition will deteriorate.

“If Chris gets put in a facility where he isn’t readily available to consistant rehab then he will not progress, he’ll slow down,” Mr. Bigelow said. “I’ll have to be dead before I sign my son off to a long-term care bed.”

And that fear is slowly becoming a frightening reality after the B.C Health Services ministry committed to covering the treatment costs in Alberta only until Jan. 15.

“They think I expect Chris to just get up and walk out of here when that’s not what we are expecting at all,” Mr. Bigelow said. “There are no facilities like this one at home for us where Chris can go. He needs to maintain the levels he is at now, if we lose that rehab we’re going nowhere and there is not one facility in B.C. that has all these therapy services under one roof such as here in Ponoka.”

It’s written on Mr. Bigelow’s face — the committed father has barely worked in the last two years and has depleted his savings trying to support his son. He rents out a basement suite in Ponoka and resides there Tuesday to Friday to be with his son.

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“The government won’t provide funding or care assistance to help improve our house to make it accessible to Chris,” Mr. Bigelow said. “All this comes down to is dollars and cents.”

B.C. Health Services had released statements to the media claiming that the decision to cut off the funding would come from the opinion of medical professionals and not the ministry itself. However, Mr. Bigelow said he finds error in this comment after one of Chris’s former doctors from Surrey Memorial— neurologist John Diggle — submitted a letter to the health ministry Nov. 27, 2009.

“I am writing this letter to support Dr. Bigelow’s extended stay in Ponoka, Alberta,” the letter reads. “He is receiving aggressive rehabilitation for his traumatic brain injury and, according to his treating physiatrist, has made moderate gains in his functional status.”

In a meeting Jan. 11, including Mr. Bigelow, Chris’s physiotherapist and two doctors, B.C. Health Ministry concluded this letter submitted by Dr. Diggle was not clear enough on which to base a decision. The ministry asked that Dr. Diggle write another letter to further explain and clarify his recommendations for the situation.

Despite the outcome, Mr. Bigelow is prepared to fight for his son who no longer can.

“We want to get him to a place where he can be independent but still have a full-time care worker,” Mr. Bigelow said. “Until then, I will take him in the rain, snow, sun and wind just so he can still experience some kind of normal.”

Since Mr. Bigelow went to the press a few weeks ago, has been bombarded with emails of personal stories much the same with one common denominator — the failure of the system to support those who are in desperate need.

“I’m not talking just a couple of people here,” he said. “There are thousands dealing

with situations much like ours. When the system breaks down it pushes you to an unimaginable place.”

B.C. Health Minister Kevin Falcon remained tight-lipped with the family until Jan. 8 when Mr. Bigelow’s brother received an email response.

“I can assure you that any decision about provincial funding or medical treatment at the Centre in Alberta will be directed by the medical recommendations from the attending specialist(s) at the Centre and the specialist(s) in British Columbia,” the email said. “Although the Centre in Ponoka offers a “slow stream” program, similar rehabilitation services are certainly available at hospitals in British Columbia…(I) assure you that the Ministry of Health Services will review the medical recommendations from the medical professionals before a final decision is made about funding treatment services at the Centre.”

Upon contacting the minister of health’s office, the Ponoka News was given a statement: “The Ministry of Health Services recognizes the desires of Dr. Bigelow’s friends and family that he continues to receive the best care possible. As we have done over the last two years, the ministry will continue to support the best plan of care for Dr. Bigelow based on the expert advice and recommendations of his health professionals in Alberta and in B.C.”

Currently, Chris receives various rehab treatments including speech therapy, physio, cycling and aqua therapy that are helping him to rebuild the connection he lost.

“I will never stop being vocal and loud about this,” Mr. Bigelow said. “If you give people the right tools miracles will happen. He’s already gained and he’s still gaining.”

Mr. Bigelow brightens up when describing the Chris that’s still buried inside. The two would dive together and he was an all-around hockey boy who loved to stay athletic.

“You don’t just give up on the people you love,” Mr. Bigelow said. “The more you put in, the more you get out — we will get there.”

Mr. Bigelow maintains a detailed blog with updates on Dr. Christopher Bigelow so that colleagues and friends can keep in the know of the young doctor’s life. Visit the site at www.drbigelow.blogspot.com Mr. Bigelow can be reached at drbigelow@shaw.ca