The family of a B.C. physician who suffered a major brain injury in a car accident is speaking out about how he was denied rehabilitation in his home province and given only limited support for treatment elsewhere.
"The hurdles have been non-stop," said the man's father, Kevin Bigelow. "It's awful. It's just like pulling your heart out."
Dr. Christopher Bigelow, 33, is undergoing intensive rehabilitation at a facility in Alberta. According to his father, most doctors in B.C. said his condition was hopeless. Despite that, reports now indicate he is showing some improvement.
Christopher had recently graduated from medical school when the car he was riding in was in an accident in November of 2007. Before his family found treatment for him, his father said, he spent a year lying immobile in Surrey Memorial Hospital, without any rehabilitation and with minimal assistance.
Bigelow had suffered a severe head injury, leaving him in what doctors described as a "minimally conscious state."
"It got so we hated to leave him, because we weren't sure what would happen," the father said. "The care there was — from what I've seen elsewhere — substandard.
'He's a victim now of the very system he wanted to help.'— Dr. Christopher Bigelow's father, Kevin
"He worked long and hard at what he wanted just for the dream of being able to be a doctor — and practise in this place. And this place has sorely let him down.
"He's a victim now of the very system he wanted to help."
Bigelow said Christopher was deemed not responsive enough to qualify for treatment at Vancouver's G.F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre, and doctors suggested the family place him in a long-term care facility. His father is adamant this will never happen because the stimulation for him in that setting would be minimal and lacks the intensive rehabilitation he is receiving now.
"We spend millions of dollars saving lives, but we don't care what happens after we save the life," Bigelow said. "We give them three months to show us signs that they are going to come back and, if not, we get rid of them."
The family found space for him at the Halvar Jonson Centre for Brain Injury in Ponoka, Alta. Bigelow has been there since March. He is now correctly answering questions and responding to commands non-verbally. He has also started to move his limbs.
B.C. funding set to end
"When we come into the room, he will look our way and his arm will start to move," Bigelow said. "When you are standing beside him, he will be reaching out to touch you or to grab your hand. And when he has your hand, he will squeeze almost enough to break your finger."
The B.C. Health Services Ministry agreed to pay for his treatment in Alberta, on a temporary, time-limited basis, but that funding is set to run out Jan. 15.
"Nobody listens," Bigelow said. "Nobody cares. To government, it is just dollars and cents."
"We shouldn't have to go to the media with this," said Chris's sister Shelley Bigelow-Bradshaw. "I always just thought this was something that you would get help with."
Kevin Bigelow offered to pay for his son's rehab but said he was told this would not be allowed under the public health-care system. The Insurance Corporation of British Columbia has paid out some money for special equipment and therapy outside the Halvar Jonson Centre, but the claim from the accident has still not been fully settled.
The family is pushing the B.C. government to pay for an extension in Alberta, because there is still no comparable treatment for him at home.
"There have been times lately — with the fight with the B.C. government — that I am thinking, 'Why did we save him?'" the father said. "Because I can't imagine being locked in a body not able to move and show emotion and fight every day."
Doctors support family's request
B.C. neurologist Dr. John Diggle treated Christopher prior to his move to Alberta and continues to confer with his doctors there. Diggle wrote letters of support to the Health Ministry in November, saying, "He has made moderate gains in his functional status …based on those gains … I would fully recommend an extended stay at the Halvar Jonson Centre."
Alberta physician Dr. George Rosenkranz has also written in support of continuing Christopher's care in Alberta. "The intervention has stopped his frequent epileptic seizures and since then he has very slowly, but definitely, started to follow simple and repeated verbal commands," Rosenkranz wrote in another recent letter to the B.C. Health Ministry.
Despite those medical opinions, the latest correspondence from the ministry indicates funding is still only in place until mid-January.
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Kevin Bigelow said he needs time to find a new home to accommodate his son's needs, before he can bring him home. He also wants to arrange private therapy at home, which he said can be expensive and difficult to organize.
"I'm not asking for the moon," Bigelow said. "I just want the rehab and the things that he is moving forward in. I want a chance for me to work with him for as long as it takes."
"He deserves the chance to keep progressing and to get back to wherever he can get," his sister Shelley said. "He's a human being."
No response from B.C. minister
CBC News asked for an interview with B.C. Health Minister Kevin Falcon but did not hear back about the request. The ministry sent a statement, which reads:
"The Ministry of Health Services recognizes the desires of Dr. Bigelow's friends and family that he continues to receive the best care possible … 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."
Professionals who work in the field of brain injury confirmed services for the most severely injured patients are lacking, in B.C. and elsewhere.
G.F. Strong "doesn't have long-term services of that type," said Dr. Jennifer Yao, medical manager of the acquired brain injury program there. "Some people are left in the cracks. This is an area that could be improved upon."
"There's definitely a need for additional rehabilitation services for this population," said Jerry Stanger, director of brain injury services for the Fraser health region, which also did not accept Dr. Bigelow for treatment in its program.
"Our rehabilitation services are currently under review."
Growing national problem, association says
The Brain Injury Association of B.C. says that brain injury is the number one cause of death and injury for people under 45. It estimates 160,000 people in B.C. suffer from brain injuries, with 14,000 new injuries occurring every year.
"There aren't enough services at any price," said B.C. Opposition Health Critic Adrian Dix. "And people say, 'Isn't it expensive? Can we afford it?' Well, in many cases not providing the services is incredibly expensive — because these patients end up back in acute care with serious complications."
"This is a national issue. What we need right now is to take the issue seriously. We need to respond to the very significant recommendations from brain injury groups and make improvements in the system. Because it's not going to get better."
Shirley Johnson, president of the Brain Injury Association of Canada, said more people are surviving brain trauma than ever before, with new medical technology to keep them alive.
"It takes a tremendous toll on family caregivers," Johnson said. "The majority of people in Canada do not have the money it takes to pay for the care that's needed. What it comes down to is, it's up to the families."
Kevin Bigelow flies back and forth to Alberta constantly to help his son with his rehabilitation. He said caring for him and fighting for resources has become a full-time job and depleted almost all of his savings.
"If your loved one has a serious brain injury, unless you are very, very wealthy you are not going to be able get the help. It will not be there for you," he said.