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Posts Tagged ‘brain injury’

The Tenacity of Larry Baillie

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

March 22, 2009

On May 29, 1990, Larry Baillie was driving without a seat belt when he was pulled over. Slipping the belt on before the policeman got to his car window, he congratulated himself on avoiding a ticket.

Baillie was then a travelling salesman on the Prairies.  He sold stuffed animals. He had previously served in the armed forces at a remote radar station in Saskatchewan. To relieve his boredom, he had taken up oil painting, emerging as one of western Canada’s top young artists. Later he sold newspaper ads and photocopiers. He was married and had a son.

On May 30, 1990 — the day after avoiding the ticket — Baillie was driving without a seat belt  near Shaunavon, Saskatchewan, when a pickup truck ran a stop sign. He hit the pickup at 100 km/h, flying out of his seat and smashing his head into the windshield.

The resulting brain injury left him unable to stand, speak clearly or control his emotions. He was forgetful, unable to concentrate, and in constant pain. He was adjudged “a-vocational”   — unable ever to work or study again, permanently consigned to a CPP disability pension.

No, said Larry. He promised himself to recover well enough to run a marathon, go back to school and get back to work.

He soon learned that the major gains in rehabilitation from brain injuries occur within two years of the injury. Because the health system was too slow, “I put together my own program and followed it.”

He started swimming at the YMCA, and cut his weight from 300 pounds to 170. Stretches and exercise partially revived his sense of balance. For  hand-eye co-ordination, he played short-court, a game “similar to squash except  it hurts less when you get hit.”

Three years after his injury, wearing air casts on his legs, he ran a half-marathon. A year later, he ran a full marathon. A wilderness canoe trip inspired him to paint again, this time in water-colours. In 1997, the March of Dimes used a painting of his on a card, distributing more than a million copies across the country.

He became a Scout leader and a performer, appearing in costume as the Pillsbury Doughboy, the Energizer Bunny and Wes Lee Coyote, the mascot of the University of Winnipeg football team. He visited hospitals as a clown called Dr. Bubbles, a forgetful physician. He learned magic stunts,  using humour to fill in the gaps when he momentarily forgot what he was doing.

“Face it, pace it, and get on with it,” Larry says. “That’s my motto.” He still struggles with memory, speech, concentration and balance, particularly when he’s tired. He was once thrown off a bus because the driver though he was drunk.

In 2003, frustrated that potential employers “saw my disability before they saw the person,” Baillie enrolled in Red River College, winning A+ grades. Two years later, he entered the Bachelor of Social Work program at the University of Manitoba. In 2007, stung by a classmate’s taunt that he’d gotten into university “through the back door,” he applied for two national merit-based scholarships, including the Canada Millennium Scholarships.

“I was really excited about Millennium because they had three levels of awards,” he remembers, “and I thought maybe I could qualify for the lowest one.” He won the top one, a National In-Course Excellence Award. He was stunned and thrilled. It was “like winning the lottery.”

“It was the recognition that mattered,” he explains. The award “was based on merit and leadership. It was one of the first times in my life that I’ve been seen for my ability, and not my disability.”

Larry was awarded his BSW last year. At the graduation ceremony, he stood beside the stage and cried. Then he found a job, and asked CPP to terminate his pension. It was the first such request that the CPP officials had ever encountered.

“I sometimes tell people that my brain injury knocked some sense into my head,” Larry jokes. Well, no. But it did provide him with the opportunity to become a brilliant example of courage, determination and intelligence –  and not just for the disabled, but for all of us.

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