The Bridgmans: love for each other conquers all challenges

“I saw him lying on the gurney and rushed over to him. He still had on his riding boots, but his racing gear was all cut up with jagged edges. I saw the cervical collar, but it didn't register. I was confused -- almost irritated -- why he wasn't turning his head to look at me.  I bent over him and when our eyes locked, he whispered, ‘I am so scared, I can’t feel my legs.’  His eyes left mine and again stared up at the ceiling. I watched a single tear roll down the side of his face. I couldn’t respond. I had no words. It was the biggest shock of my life. But the voice in my heart never stuttered. Even in that moment, I knew immediately that no matter what the future held, one thing would not change: our lives would still be together.”

And so, that’s how the lives of Chris and Jennifer Bridgman took the unexpected turn that a devastating spinal cord injury typically causes. 

In February of 2010, then 32-year-old Chris, an avid dirt biker, suffered his injury in something he grew up doing for many years.  With his wife eight months pregnant with their first child, he went out to a track in Santa Clara to put his newly-acquired dirt bike to test.  It wasn’t his first choice to be at that track but he decided to make the best of it. 

   From left to right:  Christopher, Chris, Hunter, Jenn and Kellan

From left to right:  Christopher, Chris, Hunter, Jenn and Kellan

Chris reluctantly put on his gear and started riding his bike a few laps.  “On this one turn I came across, I noticed a guy watering the turn which made the track slippery,’ recalled Chris.  As he was jumping the jumps, he carried too much speed at the turn, finding himself facing a part of the track that had been cut out, creating a much higher drop than Chris had expected.  Realizing the precarious situation he was now facing midair, he let go of the bike, crashing down in a seated position on the hard surface.  “A guy runs over to me and asked how I was doing and I remember staring into the sky not being able to feel my legs,” said Chris, describing the immediate moments at the time of his accident.

Meanwhile, Jenn was out with her mother shopping for nursery items in advance of her baby shower the next day.  It was a normal day, just like every other day for the couple.  “I got a call from someone saying that Chris was involved in an accident at the track and he was OK but taken to the hospital by an ambulance,” recalled Jenn.  The person didn’t know which hospital but Jenn speculated that it could be Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose.  As they arrived at the hospital, they had actually gotten there before the ambulance and once Jenn was able to connect with Chris, the reality of the situation began to set in.

The neurosurgeon was able to speak with Jenn but “all I heard him say was spinal cord injury and the need to perform surgery immediately,” Jenn recalled.  For Chris, he never lost consciousness throughout his ordeal.  Following the spinal fusion performed on his injured back, Chris spent a month rehabbing at the hospital, renowned for its specialty and expertise in spinal cord injury rehabilitation. 

Prior to his injury, Chris was an athletic and fit person and so for him, rehab was a challenge he welcomed openly.  He had been told about the significant odds of marriages surviving an injury of this kind, especially if the spouse becomes the caretaker.  Knowing he had a child on the way, his main focus was becoming independent so as to not become a burden to Jenn. 

   Chris at the Magical Bridge Playground in Palo Alto with sons Christopher (at the top) and Kellan

Chris at the Magical Bridge Playground in Palo Alto with sons Christopher (at the top) and Kellan

“The reality of the injury had not quite set in yet,” said Chris.  Not until the homecoming.  “We had about 20 family members at the house all wearing "Team Chris" shirts. We had balloons, cake and the "Rocky" theme song playing as Chris wheeled up our newly-constructed ramp,” Jenn recalled vividly.  Her husband and father of her unborn child was finally home.  But Chris had a different feeling.  “The hardest day for me was when I came home. It was a really dark day for me. I looked at pictures of myself around the house and realized I'm not who I used to be. Emotionally, I was a wreck.” explained Chris.  Jenn added “Once the guests left, he became so sad.”

Seven days later, Jenn went into labor and they welcomed their first son that evening. Baby Christopher, named after his father, was a huge distraction and motivator for Chris. As newlyweds and new parents, their roles weren’t clearly defined, which was a positive thing for them as they adjusted their lives accordingly to new responsibilities and routines around the house. 

In the meantime, Chris continued his physical therapy work on an outpatient basis.  He acknowledges struggling with his masculinity as he was accustomed to the role of a man around the house doing pre-defined tasks, whether it involved taking the trash out, doing the manual labor around the house, etc.  He would have occasional thoughts about not being able to teach his son certain things fathers tend to do but throughout it all, he kept things in focus: “I’m not a quitter, I never give up” was what he told himself.    

In May of 2012, the Bridgmans welcomed their second son, Hunter.  Chris had returned to his position as a mortgage officer at Bank of America.  The couple had their hands full managing a busy household and the arrival of Hunter energized them further.

As if they weren't busy enough, Chris & Jenn engaged with the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation and hosted a fundraising event.  The September 27, 2015 event raised well over $70,000 to support the Foundation’s SCI research work.  In November of 2017, the couple were recognized and awarded with the prestigious Christopher Reeve Spirit of Courage award in New York, honoring their philanthropic efforts to speed the development of treatments for spinal cord injury.  In accepting the award, Chris described his feelings, “Being paralyzed forces someone to do a lot of soul searching. It forces you to dig deep. And early on I knew I had to make a choice to not let my injury win. It had taken away parts of me, but it would not take away my future. I reflected a lot on Christopher Reeve, feeling connected to him even though we’d never met. My wife and I read his autobiographies, and he became more of a hero to me than he’d ever been in a cape.”  Watch the video of his acceptance speech HERE.

   Chris at his kids' elementary school during their annual "My Daddy's Wheelchair" program talking about disability.

Chris at his kids' elementary school during their annual "My Daddy's Wheelchair" program talking about disability.

In October of 2015, Chris decided to go to the renowned Denver-based Craig Hospital for some intense physical therapy for a few weeks.  In all, Chris has demonstrated an amazing recovery despite the severity of his injury at the T-12/L-1 levels.  He moves his left leg, and with support, he is actually able to stand using that leg.  Being able to walk efficiently, while a goal, has been challenging despite many efforts.  He suffers from frequent pain in his legs but remains determined and unfazed.  “The injury is there every day.  It hits you at different times but I like to conquer my fears and doing things and continuing to live life,” he acknowledges. 

And that attitude is shared by Jenn as well.  The couple had their third son, Kellan, in December of 2015.  Despite three kids, it has not slowed down their activities.  Chris continues to push himself physically, taking on challenges one at a time.  He took on adapted snow skiing last year and according to Jenn, he was quickly tearing down the black diamonds. 

But for the couple, it’s all about their children and living a normal life.  For Jenn, an accomplished writer, her goal is to finish and publish her memoir, which centers around Chris' accident and raising a family while adjusting to life with a spinal cord injury. "We've learned so much over the past eight years, and I feel our family's story will help other newly-injured families suddenly forced to face a similar situation. And at the same time, our story is still being written. Once our sons are older and the time is right, I will be able to focus on writing again." For Chris, it’s also about giving back as he started attending the peer support program at the hospital he was once a patient, counseling the newly-injured.  He would also like to get into fundraising for special causes and benefits.  “Every day is so challenging in a good way.  It’s so rewarding. I feel all my biggest dreams have come true.”