After a crash: Lessons in resilience and healing

chris brigham on bike
Chris Brigham back on his bike in Hilton Head, S.C.

Chris Brigham remembers nearly everything about that Thursday morning in St. Augustine, Florida, last November. It was day 5 of the 2018 Week A Year Tour, an annual fundraising ride of some 40 cyclists who have been making their way south along the East Coast Greenway, one week a year. The group had scattered that morning to find breakfast in town. Brigham was taking a little ride while waiting for a few friends to meet him. He was heading south along a main street in town when a 16-year-old driver coming the other direction turned left in front of him.

“It was bang, bang, bang, through the air, then crumpling, then pain,” Brigham says. He remembers realizing he had about a split second before he would hit the car. He braced himself as he catapulted over his handlebars and landed on the car’s hood and windshield.

Bystanders called for an ambulance. Brigham spent four days in a Jacksonville, Florida, hospital. His diagnosis: cracked ribs, multiple fractures in his spine, two partial lung punctures, and bleeding from his spleen. “Yesterday I biked 80 miles, flying along the coast,” the lifelong cyclist remembers thinking, “and now I’m lying flat on my back and I can’t move.”

Doctors fitted Brigham with a brace, something like a turtle’s shell, to protect him from neck to pelvis, and ordered a walker before sending him home to Hilton Head, South Carolina. He spent the winter healing and by March he was taking one- to two-hour bike rides with friends, mostly on protected bike paths.

Chris and Cathy Brigham with Chris' early rehab partner, Zoe.

Brigham’s story is full of amazing coincidences. He’s an occupational medicine physician who has focused his consulting work in recent years on issues of recovery, disability, and human potential. He wrote the book on it, literally: In 2015 he published Living Abled & Healthy: Your Guide to Injury and Illness Recovery. His wife, Cathy, is a rehabilitation nurse, specializing in helping people recover. And they live in the colder months on Hilton Head, an island resort community featuring many miles of protected bike paths, perfect for Brigham’s eventual return to cycling.

Brigham sees these less as coincidences and more a message from God. “I look back and think, the Lord was not done with me,” he says, knowing the impact of the crash could easily have killed him. “I’m a spiritual person, and now I’m closer to my church than ever.”  

The American Medical Association’s Guide to the Evaluation of Permanent Impairment determines what percent of bodily function someone loses with an injury, primarily for determining things like worker’s compensation. Brigham has been a senior contributing editor to the guide. According to its measurements, he lost 44 percent of his functioning due to the crash — losses that included having to learn how to roll himself out of bed and how to walk up and down stairs.

“Cathy gave me the kind of support I recommend in my book, not just healing the body but also the spirit,” he says. Together they worked to focus not on his pain but his functioning, how one day he could only go up one step but the next day he could climb two. “The more energy you give to pain, the more it affects the brain,” he says.

His mind kept replaying the few seconds before the crash, over and over and over until he sought a psychiatrist’s help to turn off that mental video. He stuck to taking Tylenol for pain relief, knowing the risks of taking stronger but potentially addictive painkillers. At 68, Brigham says it took about three months for his fractures to heal. Now he’s working on agility and flexibility.

One irony is that in his first weeks back home, Brigham was most comfortable sitting -- which meant he could work. “I couldn’t do anything else, but I could sit at my computer and do my consulting,” he laughs. As he returns to public speaking about resilience, he knows his message will be all the more powerful because he can draw on his own story.  “I’ve written about injury recovery, but I’ve never really experienced it.”

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One lesson Brigham learned first-hand is that the world of insurance claims is incredibly complex to navigate. He hates the stereotype of ambulance-chasing attorneys but he recommends finding a lawyer to help. Brigham hired a Florida attorney who is also a cyclist, with a practice focused on cycling. “He was supportive and focused on my regaining function,” Brigham says. of his lawyer. Hold on to your beat-up bicycle, your clothing from that day, and your bike computer’s data because they are all evidence, he says.

Getting back on a bike was scary. In January, fellow WAY Tour cyclist Bob Spiegelman visited Hilton Head, so Brigham asked him a favor: to ride with him for the first time, even though his doctor might not like it. They biked a half mile together.  

“It felt awkward and uncomfortable, but I did it,” Brigham says.

A few months later, on a mild Saturday morning in late March, Brigham rode 22 miles with a group of friends. His ride included a small stretch on roads for the first time. Trusted friends rode in front of him and behind him.

He is learning to let go of things that don’t matter. “I used to be a solid B group rider [cyclists riding 15-18 miles per hour], now I’m happy to just keep up with the C group,” he says. He’s thought more about his purpose in life, perspective that helps him see the crash as “just a bump in the road.”

In those early weeks after the crash, emails and calls from his fellow WAY Tour cyclists lifted him up. “It’s a wonderful group of cyclists. I got so many emails, even from those I don’t know as well. It felt like family.”

He’s embraced the East Coast Greenway and its mission more than ever. The vision of building a 3,000-mile route to protect cyclists and pedestrians so they can safely pursue healthy activities resonates more deeply. “It’s so important,” Brigham says.


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