Hope Happens Here: The Bridgmans

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on August 20, 2020 # Hope Happens Here: 25 Stories

Jennifer Bridgman was not expecting bad news when her phone rang. It was a bright February day in 2010 and she and her mother were out and about, enjoying lunch and pedicures and last-minute shopping for the baby’s nursery.

The past year had been nearly perfect. Jennifer and her husband Chris got married in May and began building a new life together in Mountain View, CA. Now eight-months pregnant and about to meet their first child, Jennifer couldn’t have felt any happier.

But by the time she’d hung up the phone, their world had already changed; Chris had sustained a T10 injury in a dirt biking accident. Jennifer rushed to the hospital, where she found him wearing a cervical collar. As she bent over to grasp his hand, he told her he couldn’t feel his legs.The Bridgman family photo

“It was probably the most shocking moment of my life,” she says. “Those words took my breath away.”

Spinal cord injuries upend lives in an instant. For many families, the emotional crush of the injury is compounded by its suddenness; preparing for something so unexpected is impossible.

In the days after the accident, Jennifer struggled to wrap her mind around what lay ahead. As Chris endured the injury’s intense, immediate pain, she read through the hospital’s pamphlets about spinal cord injuries and attended classes on practicalities like bowel and bladder management. Despite the support and constant presence of family and friends, she felt alone and overwhelmed.

But then, remembering Christopher Reeve, Jennifer went online and discovered the Reeve Foundation. Like millions of other families impacted by paralysis who visit the website each year, she found relief through its comprehensive resources and palpable sense of community.

"I read about everything,” she says. “I read other people’s stories and all about the research and trials. I was on it all the time. It can be a very isolating injury and Reeve really did help me feel connected when I needed it.”

A month after the accident, Chris was out of rehab and in his wheelchair by Jennifer’s side as their son Christopher was born.

“Christopher was a blessing,” Chris says. “It's hard to have a pity party for too long when you have a new baby.”

But that first year was brutal. They were both grieving their past lives and learning to be parents all at once. For Chris, especially, it was a whirlwind; he threw himself into intense rehabilitative programs, determined to become independent again.

Christopher and Dana Reeve’s story became a touchstone of sorts for the young couple as they navigated their new life around the injury. They watched “Hope in Motion,” Matthew Reeve’s documentary about his father, and read Christopher’s books, one after the other.

Six months after the accident, Jennifer and Chris attended a Reeve Foundation event in San Francisco, spotlighting spinal cord injury research. The evening and in-person introduction to the community left them inspired and hopeful for the future.

“I felt really encouraged that they were fighting for people like myself,” Chris says. “And seeing the different people in wheelchairs, where no injury was alike, was really eye-opening for me.”

Reeve Foundation President and CEO Peter Wilderotter remembers being struck when he met the couple after the presentation.

“When we spoke, I could see their enduring love, their passion to help and that they would be friends of the Reeve Foundation forever,” Wilderotter says. “And they have been.”

Over the next decade, the Bridgmans, along with both of their families, would help raise more than $500,000 for the foundation’s efforts to accelerate treatment for spinal cord injuries.

As a result of these gifts, and countless others, the Reeve Foundation has helped advance research efforts around the world, including the groundbreaking epidural stimulation program at the University of Louisville’s Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center. But much work remains to be done on behalf of Chris and the millions of people who live with spinal cord injuries, Wilderotter says.

“Chris and so many others live with daily pain as a result of these injuries,” Wilderotter says. “Their stories are a reminder that the research underway is about more than future cures. Chris and Jennifer believe in the power of science and continue to give generously because there are answers out there that can help today – if we realize the ambitions of dedicated researchers.”

Through the Reeve Foundation, the Bridgmans found a community that helped them realize what was possible. Now, ten years after the accident, Jennifer and Chris happily describe themselves as a "very average family.”

With the addition of two more children, Hunter and Kellan, their world is a “madhouse,” revolving around school, baseball games and days spent on their boat.

In 2017, the couple received the Christopher Reeve Spirit of Courage Award at the Reeve Foundation’s annual gala, A Magical Evening, for their philanthropic efforts and dedication to raising awareness around spinal cord injuries.

“It was truly one of those nights we will remember forever,” Jennifer says.

The award sits on their living room mantle, a daily reminder of how far they’ve come and the people that propelled them toward hope so long ago.

“This community is so very solid and so supportive,” Jennifer says. “It truly made a difference in our recovery and our life.”