Friends helping Stillwell

Fund set up to help semi-comatose hotel owner as he struggles with head injury


As Chris Stillwell laid in a coma at Denver Health Medical Center on Thursday, his wife Cindy said it was like a waiting game, not knowing if he would come out "tomorrow or 10 years from now."

The next day, Chris, 45, opened his eyes and was responding to friends and family through blinks. It was a step in the right direction, but it did not mean, as a story in Saturday's Steamboat Today indicated, that he's out of his coma, Cindy said.

"It was very encouraging, but it's not like he's going to walk out of the hospital tomorrow," she said Saturday. "Today, he's totally unresponsive. He's not out of the coma; I would consider him semi-comatose. He does go in and out of varying levels of consciousness."

The signs of consciousness Chris showed Friday, followed by unresponsiveness Saturday, are typical for someone suffering from a severe head injury.

"He'll make a couple of steps and then regress," Cindy said. "We're somewhat encouraged by what happened, but he's not out of the woods yet. At this point, he's not talking, he's not walking, he's fighting pneumonia. He has a huge road ahead of him that will take a lot of time and money."

Chris has been in a coma since Dec. 15, when he fell down a flight of stairs at the Nite's Rest Motel, which he and Cindy own.

A tall man, Chris Stillwell was easy to spot around town. He could be seen on the sidelines coaching his children's youth sports team. He was active in the city's recreation leagues and a member of the Rotary Club.

Stillwell most often could be found at the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Sixth Street where he and Cindy owned the Nite's Rest Motel.

"Chris is an incredible human being," said childhood friend Ted Sells. "He jumped into every activity imaginable."

Sells said Chris' commitment to his family is the most notable characteristic. Chris is a father of three: Bayli, 18, a freshman at James Madison University, Tanner, 15, and Bryn, 12, the latter two students at Christian Heritage School.

He has coached for his children's basketball, baseball and hockey teams.

Chris was born in Denver and graduated from Evergreen High School in 1978. Two years later, he moved to San Diego, where he met Cindy.

The two first came to Steamboat in 1983 on their way to a backpacking trip in Wyoming. They stayed in a corner basement unit of the Nite's Rest Motel; it was one of the last rooms in town. Five years later, they bought the business and moved their family to Steamboat.

Case-by-case basis

Doctors have classified Chris with a "defused axonal injury," a "pretty severe diagnosis," Cindy said. According to the Web site, DAI is most frequently the result of traumatic deceleration injuries and a frequent cause of people going into a long-term vegetative state.

"Everything we read, everything is so individual," Sells said. "He may wake up tomorrow and be totally fine, or he may wake up and have severe developmental difficulties, or he may never wake up."

As doctors told Cindy, head injuries have to be taken on a case-by-case basis, one day at a time.

An important step in recovering is stimulating the neurons in the brain in hopes that they will rejunviate, Cindy said.

"This type of injury needs to have a lot of activity, a lot of family stimulation: playing music, talking to him, that sort of thing," Sells said.

During the past two weeks, visitors have come in and out of his room, and his mother has been reading him books by one of his favorite authors, Louis L'Amour. Bayli made CDs of his favorite 1980s songs and Sports Center has been on the television, all in hopes of keeping his brain stimulated.

With no facility able to care for Chris in Steamboat and the distance to Denver making it difficult for Cindy to take care of their children and make the three-hour drive frequently, the family would like to move Stillwell to a long-term care facility in San Diego. Several good long-term care facilities and rehabilitation centers are available in San Diego, Cindy said.

"For his best interests, it's best if he goes to San Deigo," Cindy said. "His parents and brothers are there, and they can visit him every day for several hours, which is the kind of stimulation he needs."

The cost of a medical air flight to take Chris from Denver to San Diego is expected to be about $9,000. The Rotary Club has helped set up a fund that will help cover the cost of the flight.

Slow improvements

Chris' accident occurred at about 8 p.m. Dec. 15, when Chris reportedly blacked out at the top of a flight of stairs at the motel and fell down them.

He was taken to Yampa Valley Medical Center and about 1 a.m. was flown to Denver Health Medical Center. Chris had three internal bleeds in the brain, Cindy said. Two days after the accident, a shunt was put in to relieve the pressure. Over the next five days, Chris battled pneumonia and an infection from the respirator.

Chris began making slow improvements Dec. 24, first sitting up and making some facial expressions, then squeezing hands. The shunt was removed Tuesday.

On Friday, Chris opened his eyes for about 20 minutes and would blink twice when asked questions. He left the intensive care unit Friday.

Family's challenges

Along with the grief of having Chris in the coma, the family also faces the challenges of keeping the motel running and the neighboring Steamboat Gift Basket Co. functioning during the busiest time of year.

They manage, Cindy said, thanks largely to the help of their friends.

"We are beyond overwhelmed," she said.

To help meet Christmas orders, friends helped put baskets together at the gift shop. Neighbors have been plowing snow, other friends have helped at the hotel, and hugs and calls have been made. The family was fielding so many calls about Chris that a high school friend from Evergreen set up a Web site to keep people posted. The Web site is

"It has moved us to tears," Cindy said of the community support.


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