Steamboat’s Chris Stillwell recovering, inspiring others after brain injury
October 24, 2010
Steamboat Springs — On a rainy Friday afternoon at the Steamboat Springs Community Center, Chris Stillwell's fingers deftly flipped the numbers on his two bingo boards.
Next to him, Belle Chotvacs, a feisty woman in her 80s, offered him candies as he helped remind her of the called numbers.
"He's a dear," Chotvacs said about Stillwell. "He's a really neat guy. He's got a good sense of humor.
"Usually, he sits down there on the end, but we said, 'Come on up and sit with us.'"
A lifelong athlete, Stillwell, a 52-year-old Steamboat resident, now celebrates the ability to play bingo with eight older women, and he reveres the small movements in his hands that represent tiny victories against the effects of a 2003 traumatic brain injury.
Even though his walk still is a slow, shuffling gait, he makes a little headway every day in his physical recovery and his dedication to giving back to those around him.
"I love living," Stillwell said Friday. "I love the challenges of day-to-day life and feeling like I've accomplished something, done something good for the community or for my kids. It's knowing I can go to sleep with a good, warm heart."
The way it used to be
It's been almost seven years since Stillwell fell down the stairs of the Nite's Rest Motel, a result of a previously undiagnosed heart condition, and suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Called a diffuse axonal injury, Stillwell's condition had a devastating, widespread impact on his nervous system, interrupting the neural pathways of memory and coordination that he had forged throughout his 48-year life.
He said the most difficult aspect of recovery from a traumatic brain injury is the knowledge of how things used to be.
"The brain has a tendency to remember the way it used to be," he said, "but the body doesn't remember."
He still has the knowledge of how to dribble a basketball, catch a softball or skate across a hockey rink. But he has to think through the process of every movement, telling himself to turn left or right, consciously trying to avoid obstacles.
But even years after the accident, he continues to see positive progress in the smallest of achievements.
He said everyday movements are becoming more fluid and less mechanical as he blazes new neural pathways and moves on to more complex tasks.
"Even if it's just waking up in the morning and saying, 'Hey, my toes are moving better today," he said.
They're small steps, he recognizes, but that's what life is. It's a series of tiny movements working toward a larger fulfillment, whether it's playing hockey again or finding ways to give back to the Steamboat community that rallied around him with fundraisers and moral support.
A circle of friends
Stillwell is a longtime Rotary Club of Steamboat Springs member.
His sponsor when he joined the organization 17 years ago was friend Jay Wetzler, who owns the Steamboat Hotel.
Wetzler said before his accident, Stillwell had woven a network of close friends through his participation in recreational sports leagues, coaching youth basketball and organizing an adult basketball league.
"Chris has got a huge heart," Wetzler said. "Before his accident, people would just be coming in (to Stillwell's business, Nite's Rest Motel) all the time. He was kind of my sports mentor. Sports can be kind of a cliquey thing. But in Chris' case, he kind of took me under his wing. He did that for a lot of people."
Although he's still unable to play sports the way he used to, he remains closely involved with the adult basketball league and worked as a recreational softball umpire this summer.
On top of part-time jobs at Central Park Liquor and Shell gas station, he volunteers his time on the chain gang at Steamboat Springs High School football games, convinced that being a part of the game is far more fulfilling than watching from the stands.
For Stillwell, giving back to the community is a major part of what sustains him, what gets him out of bed in the morning.
The only people more important are his three grown children, for whom he has promised to remain a role model.
"I want them to look at me and say, 'What my dad went through made me proud,'" he said.
Wetzler said his friend was never a quitter, a reminder to those in difficult situations — like the economic recession — to act with compassion and fortitude.
"People that are in far more dire straits, like what Chris went through, can pull themselves out of it when the rest of us might have thrown in the towel and just given it up," Wetzler said. "He doesn't want to fall short of anything he embarks upon."
On Friday, Stillwell vowed he'd play basketball once more. He'll swing at a softball pitch and ski down the advanced trails he did before the accident. He'll revel in the small victories — such as winning $1 in blackout bingo as the ladies applauded.
Every day, every movement, is one more step toward a full recovery.
"It's not a sprint yet," he said. "But that sprint tunnel is open."