In News & Blog, Peer Profiles, SCI BC Event

Louisa Bridgman hates running. Here’s why she’s doing it anyway.

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Louisa Bridgman isn’t your average racer. Her muscles are perpetually stiff and tight. Her “running” form is unconventional. And in her 40 years, she’s had more than 50 surgeries.

Yet when the North Vancouverite reflects on June 24, when she’ll be donning the Scotiabank Charity Challenge pinnie to race 5K in her wheelchair along Vancouver’s Seawall, she’s unfazed: “It’s gonna be a good day.”

Louisa, who lives with spastic cerebral palsy (CP), isn’t new to raising interest for disability issues. She works as a Community Connector with the Disability Foundation, acts as a Rick Hansen Foundation Ambassador, and recently took home the BC Rehab Gert Vorsteher Memorial Award for people with disabilities who show “remarkable determination” in their rehabilitation.

But this year, the Scotiabank Charity Challenge veteran is hoping to raise funds and awareness for a new cause—and to do so in honour of a very special colleague and friend.

“I’ve done [5k] over the last couple of years, but I’m specifically running for Spinal Cord Injury BC this year,” says Louisa.  She’s hoping the $2,500 she raises as a member of Team Walk ‘n’ Rollers will help the BC-wide organization provide information, services and peer connections throughout the province, ensuring that people with physical disabilities aren’t left behind.

With SCI BC, even if you don’t have a spinal cord injury but you have a similar physical disability, they include you in everything. It’s a form of community that lots of people don’t have out there.

“I know that there’s the CP Association but I never felt completely 100% accepted or included,” says Louisa. “Whereas with SCI BC, even if you don’t have a spinal cord injury but you have a similar physical disability, they include you in everything. It’s a form of community that lots of people don’t have out there.”

It’s a community that spoke to SCI BC Peer Bayan Azizi as well—and a community that suffered his loss when he passed away earlier this March. For Louisa, who met and got to know Bayan through a Disability Foundation program six years ago, Bayan’s passing hit especially close to home.

Bayan Azizi, Susan Connaghan and Louisa Bridgman participating in the ConnecTra Project. Photo Mike Wakefield / North Shore News

“He was just an inspiring young man who is gone way too soon,” she remembers. “I was able to help him find employment not once but twice and he always inspired me not to give up. Being that it’s only been less than three months since he passed away, this is the best way to honour him—to honour his life and to show him and his family how important of an impact he had on people’s lives. That’s why I’m doing the 5k.”

Bayan was just nine years old when he began to notice some worrying changes: his eyelids were drooping, his speech laboured, and his movements a little clumsier. A CT scan revealed the unthinkable: a rare tumour growing in his  brain stem. Although not cancerous, the mass was located in a place that was intricately connected to the fundamental functions of life—breathing, heart-rate, and swallowing—making complete removal impossible.

Over the next several years, the North Vancouver boy underwent three brain surgeries, maximum radiation, and chemotherapy. Each extended his life, but lost him his ability to swallow food, speak louder than a whisper, or move freely without a wheelchair.

Still, Bayan adjusted and adapted. And he thrived. Through his work with Louisa, he found  a few job placements. His up-for-anything attitude and fantastic humour were a staple at many Spinal Cord Injury BC events, where he tried his hand at paddleboarding, braved the waves at Jericho beach, and himself “ran” 5k to raise funds for Spinal Cord Injury BC.

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No one should be limited just because of their disabilities … no matter what position you’re in you shouldn’t have to give up on yourself.

In 2015, Bayan published his first book, Me, Myself and My Brain Stem Tumour: Memoirs of a Pediatric Brain Cancer, an honest and wryly humorous first-hand account of a life-threatening condition faced with acceptance, grace, and positivity.

“I hope that the readers of my book will understand that no one should be limited just because of their disabilities,” wrote Bayan for The Spin magazine. “I would describe my book as a written testimony that no matter what position you’re in you shouldn’t have to give up on yourself.”

He was working on finishing his second autobiography when, at the age of 28,  his life was cut short.

“Despite the circumstances he was in, he was a young, motivated man,” says Louisa. “He was a painter, he was an author, he was a public speaker. He was a man that everyone should aspire to be like. Whenever people are down they should remember people like Bayan, and that will just lift them up.”

This year’s 5K race course will undoubtedly feel empty without Bayan, but Louisa won’t be running alone. In addition more than 70 Walk ‘n’ Roller teammates, she can count on an instrumental companion by her side.

“Bayan’s mom, Nika, is coming with me to walk that day,” says Louisa. “She said she wanted to come because she liked the fact that I worked so hard to help her son. But she also wanted to thank everybody at SCI BC for supporting her son the way they did.”

Despite Bayan’s physical challenges, his was a world of possibilities. Louisa hopes the $2,500 she raises for SCI BC in the 5k Charity Challenge will help fill the world with possibility for other men, women, and children just like Bayan.

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