BY: JOHN STEVENS
This is the story of how two BIST members – Pinky and Sarah – met (spoiler alert: it was at a BIST community meeting) and found love.
Sarah Briggs was 19-years-old in January of 1994, and competing at the provincial level in the seventh race of the season in a downhill skiing event at Mont-Sainte-Anne, Que., when she suffered her brain injury.
Two other skiers had already lost control earlier in the competition in a very rough and steep area of the course, halfway down the hill. One had broken her leg.
As Sarah entered the section at a speed of more than 100 kilometres an hour, she lost one of her skis. She doesn’t remember much of the crash, only that she was trying to get up.
Sarah suffered severe facial injuries, lost two litres of blood and required 12 hours of surgery. She spent eight days in the hospital, five of which were in intensive care. Despite this, there was no mention that she might have acquired a brain injury.
Pinky’s real name is Michael Clouthier, but what he writes on his BIST name tag, and what he prefers to be called, is Pinky. He got his nickname in grade seven when his classmates noticed he liked to wear pink most of the time. Over the years, that part of Pinky’s style hasn’t changed. Spot the guy in pink at a community meeting, and it’s likely him.
Pinky says his brain injury is one of the best things that ever happened to him. That may sound strange to most people, but Pinky says nearly dying saved his life.
He says he was a ‘badass’ as a teenager, heading down a path that took him on the wrong side of the law with all the violence and danger that is involved. His mother and a friend each told him he would either be dead, or in prison, if not for a fateful day in October, 1991.
Pinky, then 18 years-old, was riding his mountain bicycle and on his way to a party to sing reggae songs at a friend’s place. He was listening to music on his headphones as he crossed a busy intersection in Scarborough. He never heard or saw the car as it quickly approached him on his right. By coincidence, a close friend happened to be getting off a TTC bus at the moment of his accident. That friend comforted and kept Pinky conscious until the ambulance arrived.
Doctors told Pinky they had to revive him three or four times. He was on life support for five weeks and spent 40 days in an induced coma. Pinky knew as soon as he became conscious that his life had changed. He spent the next year in hospital, learning how to walk and talk again.
Pinky says one of his mother’s friends came to visit him in the hospital. The man brought him a stuffed dog and they spoke, briefly, about religion. Their short conversation changed the course of Pinky’s life.
I thought … I went through all this and I’m still alive … (maybe God) has plans for me. God … I’m sorry I had to go through all this to be a believer. – Pinky
Pinky still has the stuffed dog from that fateful day in the hospital. He calls it CB, short for coma buddy, and still sleeps with it from time to time.
After recovering from their physical injuries, both Pinky and Sarah tried to rejoin the world they had known before. Sarah carried on with her life plan after her accident. She finished OAC and moved to Alberta to work on a Bachelor of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary. “To be a gym teacher,” she quipped.
Sarah seemed to be doing well, until she got into her fourth year. That’s when her workload changed and she noticed that everything became much harder. She also noticed she was not making good decisions in her personal life. She decided to move back to Toronto and re-enrol at the University of Toronto, closer to family and friends. It took her six years, in all, to finally finish her bachelor degree. The stress, however, was too much for her and Sarah suffered a mental breakdown.
Not one to give up, in 2000, Sarah enrolled in teachers college at Queens University. Her workload was even more intense than the fourth year of her bachelor’s degree. Things did not go well when, three weeks into school, Sarah began a teaching placement in Peterborough.
I was just trying to act like everything was normal. I didn’t know I had a brain injury. – Sarah
Sarah underwent a number of examinations and tests to try to determine what could be causing her problems. Finally, the doctors diagnosed her brain injury symptoms and told her she had probably suffered an acquired brain injury as a result of her skiing accident.
Sarah withdrew from teachers’ college. She says she had trouble, similar to other survivors, accepting her new reality and life. With her new diagnosis, Sarah entered the first stage of recovery, denial.
Sarah tried to go on, moving in with a sister and brother-in-law. She helped to care for their four children as a live-in nanny would. She worked part-time as a ski instructor in winter and at various odd jobs in the summer such as landscaping.
Pinky tried working at Walmart, but he had trouble keeping his interest in a job for very long. So he worked at almost every position in the store, except the cash register. After a year, he left.
At BIST community meetings, Pinky will often one of the first members to introduce himself to a newcomer. He’ll break the ice and calm first-timer nerves by showing off his rhyming-on-the-spot skills. (He can rhyme pretty much anything, except for the word ‘orange’, he says.) He enjoys music, sings and raps – even about his accident. When he and a partner decided to start a karaoke business the year after he left Walmart, Pinky thought his extraverted personality and love of music meant he was bound for success.
For three years, at least, there was success. Pinky found he had no patience dealing with drunken customers at various bars around the city. But the venture did give Pinky, an avid wrestling fan, the opportunity meet retired professional wrestler Reginald ‘Sweet Daddy’ Siki, who also happens to be in the karaoke business in Toronto. Siki sold Pinky some equipment for his business and he still attends karaoke the occasional Saturday afternoon at The Duke, where Sweet Daddy Siki continues to host.
One day in 2005, a friend told Sarah about an organization for people with brain injuries. Sarah’s friend had also suffered a brain injury after a car landed on her car from an overpass. This friend took Sarah to her first BIST meeting. Sarah says she noticed another survivor, Pinky, as she went to BIST events.
I was in awe, because I was so devastated by this thing (the brain injury) and I saw this guy. He was so positive and he was making people laugh. [His brain injury] hadn’t totally destroyed him. I thought that was so cool. – Sarah
Someone once asked Pinky how come he is so happy and he replied, “Like Tupac said, ‘keep your head up’…in all things.”
Pinky says he noticed Sarah too:
I thought she was a high-class woman. I (really) didn’t think she would be interested (in me). – Pinky
Both were in relationships with other people when they met, but they got to know each other as they went to more BIST meetings. Getting to know Pinky over the next three-years helped Sarah get to the point many survivors face, acceptance. “Well, this is new me, and I can live with that,” she said.
Sarah says she and Pinky eventually exchanged phone numbers, but Pinky didn’t call. Sarah later recalled being on a dinner date with someone, who happened to be friends with Pinky, and all she wanted to do was talk and ask questions about Pinky.
She was at a jazz festival in the summer of 2008, when Sarah decided to ‘take the initiative’ and call Pinky. He came by with a friend, in a car, and picked her up. The two started dating, and the “rest is history”.
Early in 2009, Pinky and Sarah were finishing a presentation about relationships after brain injury at BIST. Pinky asked Sarah to close her eyes. He told the crowd that he had to make ‘good’ on his words as he got down on one knee, pulled a small box from his pocket, opened it, and asked Sarah to marry him. They were married that summer.
Pinky has another reason to smile and another ‘best thing’ coming into his and Sarah’s life soon. They are expecting a baby this July. Pinky laughs when asked about his thoughts on becoming a father:
Daddy O…Daddy Pinky. What do you want Pinky Junior?
John Stevens is a former writer, journalist and television producer. He is a nine-year brain injury survivor and six-year member of BIST. This is his first feature since his injury.