Langley family perseveres after tragic accident

A “selfie” taken with a cellphone by Richard “Chuckie” Smith is equal parts vibrant and haunting.

On April 13, Chuckie took a photo of himself not long before he was involved in a horrific snowmobile accident that changed his life and the lives of those closest to him, forever.

Saturday, Dec. 13, marked eight months since the snowmobile that the Langley resident was riding on plunged over a 150-foot cliff at Brandywine Falls Provincial Park, located between Whistler and Squamish.

Today, Chuckie remains non-responsive and in a minimal conscious state from his traumatic brain injury.

His common-law spouse, Drea Tirshman, said there are small signs of improvement from his original diagnosis of forever remaining in a vegetative state.

“We still keep faith,” Drea said. “I attend to him daily, and very proactive to help him in his recovery.”

The accident has taken its toll, both emotionally and economically, on Chuckie’s family which includes Drea and the couple’s two young children, Ryder, four, and Brooklyn, one.

For those who may find themselves in a similar situation, Drea reminds them to have a living will and for families to have power of  attorney as well as insurance on life and, most importantly, for a disability.

“We didn’t have anything in place, and hope that other young families can learn from us,” she said.

The accident has impacted the family on many levels. Chuckie took Ryder dirt biking and to other activities, and used to playfully chase his kids around the house.

“He’s a kid himself,” Drea said.

She finally spoke to Ryder about the accident over Easter weekend.

“The first thing he said was he wanted to give him a Band-Aid because daddy got hurt, really hurt,” Drea recalled. “I told him, ‘Baby, I don’t think a bandage is going to help this.’”

Drea was at home when the accident occurred.

She had taken Ryder and Brooklyn to the Greater Vancouver Zoo in Aldergrove.

They just came into the door of their home when the phone rang.

“That’s when one of the friends that he was sledding with that day called me and let me know,” Drea shared.

She called the hospital right away to let doctors know about allergies and to identify Chuckie.

“They said he wasn’t going to survive, at first,” Drea said. “The biggest concern was the brain injury.”

Chuckie’s friends and family rallied sprung to action after the accident.

His mom, who lives in Kamloops, stayed with Drea and the kids for three months.

“Because we’ve had so many friends who have helped us out, and so many friends in the softball community, in the sledding community, he’s such a good-natured guy, everyone loves Chuckie, that we did fundraisers in the beginning, and that raised enough money to keep our house,” Drea said.

The couple had completely renovated the home they purchased about four years ago, including adding a new roof and drywall.

“We were about $50,000 in debt, so they raised enough money that we actually paid all our bills off,” Drea said.

On one night at the Thirsty Penguin on the Langley Bypass, $27,000 was raised to help the family.

Residents in Chuckie’s hometown of Barriere, in central B.C., also held dances and other fundraisers for the family.

Meanwhile, Drea said, she basically “camped out at the hospital” for a month after the accident.

“We didn’t know if he was going to survive,” Drea said.

There were small signs of progress in the weeks and months after the crash. After two weeks, Chuckie opened his eyes slightly; roughly four months later, he started to use his thumbs a bit.

“Now he’s at a point where he’s starting to follow you with his eyes, and focus on you, and move his hands and his feet,” Drea said. “Now he’s in a minimal conscious state, so he comes in and out [of consciousness].”

Chuckie, who turned 31 on Dec. 18, is relatively young, and was very active and fit before the accident, all of which puts the odds of a better recovery more in his favour.

“The brain is easier to rebuild… and make new passages when you’re younger than when you’re older,” Drea said.

Recently, Chuckie has been undergoing hyperbaric oxygen treatments.

“He seems to have been improving with these treatments,” Drea said. “He’s on his 40th session this week, but we have now stretched our resources to the maximum, paying for this privately.”

According to Drea, hyperbaric oxygen therapy is unique to any other therapy used for brain injuries and neurological conditions: she said it is the only therapy known that can significantly raise the oxygen content in the brain and cause an adaptation for repair and quicker recovery.  

She added that, although the Medical Service Plan of B.C. is currently acknowledging the benefits and use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy for a limited set of conditions, no direct coverage is presently provided for traumatic brain injury.

This is an expensive undertaking, at a cost of $150 per 90-minute session, and Chuckie may receive 200-300 sessions.  

“He is showing improvements, and we are asking for help to continue these treatments for Chuckie’s recovery,” Drea said.

A fundraising page has been set up, to help pay for the hyperbaric treatments. Visit it by clicking here.

Lifting the family’s spirits is the fact that Chuckie is coming home for a short time, to spend Christmas with his family.

“We were thinking about having a day with him in the hospital,” Drea said. “[Having him home] didn’t dawn on me that it was possible.”

A bed was delivered to the home on Dec. 12, and a paving company that Chuckie used to work for has donated material for a wheelchair-accessible walkway.

Also, Drea recently purchased a van equipped with a lift, to transport Chuckie to the house.

“To be together again as a family with our small children, especially for Christmas morning – it will require modifications to our home and getting equipment to help with all his basic needs,” Drea said. “We miss him terribly. Our children want their daddy home.”

With the snowmobile upon us, Drea cautions even the most experienced sledders, snowboarders, and skiers to be aware in the back country.

“I don’t even know if Chuckie knew what happened that day,” she said. “I think he wasn’t even aware that the cliff was there, it was a bright, sunny day.”  

“Nothing could have prepared us for what happened,” she added. “Life can change in a heartbeat.”  

Visit a Facebook Page in support of the family by clicking here.

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