TORONTO — Courage isn’t always about fighting fires and saving lives. Sometimes, the simple act of living day to day is the truer mark of valour.
Howard Brown and Ontario Health Minister George Smitherman at the BIAC fundraiser.
That’s what a high-powered Toronto audience of nearly 150 people learned last week at the city’s fourth annual Hawaiian Oyster Odyssey fundraiser, held at a mid-town restaurant in support of the Brain Injury Society of Toronto (BIST) and the Brain Injury Association of Canada (BIAC).
Howard Brown, a founding director of the national charity – his cousin, Steven Sieber, succumbed to a traumatic brain injury in 2001 at age 46 after being hit by a car in 1977 – is also the voluntary fundraising chair of the association and the inspiration behind the yearly event.
“This is the height of [tikkun olam] in action,” Brown told The CJN. “There are many support organizations out there already for other causes, but we’re bringing awareness to a community who need our help and our advocacy. My cousin is no longer here, but what better way to honour his memory than this fundraiser?”
As for why organizers chose a “Hawaiian Oyster” theme, oysters contain zinc, a mineral thought to help the brain maintain “peak performance.” The Hawaiian theme reflects the most coveted prize of the event’s annual silent auction – a pair of tickets to Hawaii courtesy of Air Canada.
Guests were bedecked with leis and treated to 1950s surfer music, as well as an oyster-shucking contest and Hawaiian punch. They were encouraged to bid lavishly on items in the silent auction to benefit the two organizations.
But most importantly, attendees heard from the evening’s VIPs, as one by one, the gala’s hosts – all young survivors of brain injuries – stood up to recount their life-altering stories and appeal for financial aid in order to increase awareness of this debilitating condition.
According to BIAC, more than 50,000 Canadians sustain brain injuries every year, which are the “number 1 killer and disabler of people under 45.”
Symptoms of brain injury include loss of emotional control, memory loss, impaired reasoning skills, speech impairment, nausea, confusion, chronic headaches and various cognitive impairments. And every sufferer manifests their symptoms uniquely, making brain injury difficult to treat and diagnose.
The worst part for many is the realization of what they’ve lost and seeing that reflected in the eyes of their friends and families. The crushing depression that can follow – as their old, vibrant selves are replaced by an unrecognizable, altered version – is common among survivors.
Megan Patterson, past-president of BIST, who breathes using a tracheostomy tube, recalled her injury to The CJN.
“I was in a coma for two weeks after my car accident,” she said. “It’s 11 years later, and I’m getting through it with the amazing support of my family and friends. I now volunteer to help make things easier for other victims. But I wish I’d had someone who would’ve helped mentor me through this earlier on.”
Patterson, 31, hopes to address this need by rolling out a program of brain injury peer mentoring with BIST later this year.
Danny Betts, 31, another BIST volunteer, had his life changed in an instant.
“At 29, I slid off a motorcycle 40 feet into a [parked car] and was diagnosed with severe traumatic brain injury,” he recalled with stilted speech and a sad look on his face. “Since then, my perception of reality has changed. Most days, I can’t remember what I ate for breakfast [or] if I even had breakfast. I was once an up-and-comer. Now, I’m having a very hard time.”
Also in attendance was Sarah Briggs, 33, a former member of the national ski team. In 1994, at 19, Briggs endured a catastrophic wipe-out on the slopes of Mont Ste. Anne in Quebec and had a bright future almost completely snuffed out.
“My face took the full impact of the fall, and then I slid face-first down nearly 30 feet of slope. I had 11 hours of reconstructive surgery, spent 13 days in the hospital. Most of the time, I feel very lucky to be alive,” Briggs said. “Afterwards, I thought my life would go back to normal. Nothing was further from the truth. I’ve had [electro-convulsive therapy], suffered depression, had a psychotic episode… and had to withdraw from my teaching work. I was crushed.”
But Briggs vowed to the audience that she is still fighting to get her life back.
“I’m discovering there are many things I can still do. This is my focus now instead of [focusing] on all the things I was told I could not do,” she said.
According to Brown, last week’s Toronto fundraiser brought in nearly $100,000, and since 2005, similar BIAC events have raised more than $500,000 in communities across Canada.
BIAC’s Oyster Odyssey campaign started with one event in 2005 and this year features 10 galas scheduled for major urban centres coast to coast. Each will benefit the local community’s brain injury society.
Brown and his wife, Kim Cohen – who together run Toronto PR firm Brown & Cohen Communications & Public Affairs Inc. – have used both their personal and business contacts to attract big-name donors and supporters to the events.
On hand to express their support were numerous politicians, businesspeople and philanthropists, including Ontario Minister of Education Kathleen Wynne, Minister of Health and Long Term Care George Smitherman, Willowdale MPP David Zimmer, MP Carolyn Bennett and former Toronto mayor David Crombie.
“There’s a humbling [feeling] that this could be any one of us,” Bennett said after listening to Briggs’ story. “As a family doctor, I remember knowing patients before their injury and then watching the courage they had to get through afterwards.”
Said Brown: “We have two objectives. To build community and show brain injury survivors that their voice is heard,” he said. “That’s why it’s important that [politicians] get to hear their stories first-hand.”
Cohen concurred, adding: “At the end of the day, you take satisfaction from all the people and sponsors who made donations to help people who are not otherwise helped.”
For more information about brain injury and BIAC’s work, visit www.biac-aclc.ca.