CLEVELAND—Shawn Bigham, recipient of the Gabrielle Giffords Inspiration Award, remembers a lot of things.
He remembers competing in various sporting activities as a boy, participating in football, baseball and track. He recalls being an avid runner and general fitness nut later in life.
What Bigham doesn't remember is the accident that rendered him unable to continue doing many of the physical activities he used to enjoy.
The Bridgestone Americas veteran's life was forever changed Dec. 7, 2001, when he hit a moose with his car while driving out of Parley's Canyon in Utah. Though the details of the accident remain a blur, when he woke up in the hospital he quickly realized the severity of the damage.
“The doctor did a lot of testing. 'Can you feel this? Can you move this?' It was pretty obvious what was going on,” he said.
A severe spinal cord injury as a result of the crash left him paralyzed from the waist down and has kept him confined to a wheelchair for the last decade.
That's not to say Bigham doesn't still get his workouts.
“Every day is an exercise—every day,” he said. “You're transferring out of your bed into your wheelchair, transferring to the shower, transferring back to the bed, transferring to the car, rolling your wheelchair through the parking lot, putting your chair together, taking it apart—it's a workout every day. But I'd rather have that than be stagnant and let my body just not do anything.”
“Stagnation” is a word Bigham refuses to allow to define him, either personally or professionally. After three years of intense physical therapy, and with the support of Bridgestone, he returned to work in a customer relations role.
As a result of his injury and comeback, the American Association of People with Disabilities selected Bigham winner of the inaugural Gabrielle Giffords award, named for the Arizona congresswoman and former tire dealer who survived an assassination attempt in 2011. The award was presented Sept. 19 at the ITEC conference and exhibition, sponsored by Rubber & Plastics News and Tire Business.
“Representative Giffords exemplifies the American values of determination, hard work and leading by example,” said Mark Perriello, CEO of the AAPD. “The Gabrielle Giffords Inspiration Award is a symbol and celebration of these ideals, and Mr. Bigham manifests these qualities in his daily life through his work at Bridgestone Tires and his leadership in his community.”
Ask Bigham's coworkers at Bridgestone Americas about him and you'll hear words like “inspiration” and “courageous,” but ask Bigham himself and he'll tell you he's just a normal guy who did his best with a bad situation.
“They give me too much credit,” he said. “You just don't have a choice. I mean, it is what it is, and there're just two choices. One choice was I could give up and cry 'Why me?' for the rest of my life, or I could move on and realize, 'OK, you still have to live.'”
When he learned he was paralyzed, Bigham said depression set in, but didn't last. “I think I was more concerned with, 'OK, how do I do this then? How do I make this work?'” he said. “That was my concern. I don't think the paralysis was a concern. I was just thinking of how do I go forward.”
David Redfern, director, global accounts, Bridgestone Global Mining Support, has known Bigham since before his accident. Though Redfern was his supervisor, they became good friends in their early years at the firm.
Bigham, who started with Bridgestone in 1999, missed three years while recuperating from the accident.
“He was a great guy then, he was vibrant, always smiling, he was a super health nut and he was always working out,” Redfern said. He called Bigham an inspiration both to himself and many other Bridgestone employees.
“I've never seen him discouraged with what happened to him. It was never a 'Why me?' situation. It was just, 'Well, this is what I'm supposed to do and this is how I'm supposed to do it.' I think that's what's so inspiring about him.”
After the accident, Bigham's prognosis was pretty bleak, Redfern said. There was talk that, besides paralysis, he may spend the rest of his life on a respirator and lose the use of his right hand, which was crushed in the accident. Instead, he can breathe on his own and has regained much mobility in his hand.
Upon returning to the company, Bigham took on a position as an off-the-road tire program manager in the company's Commercial Solutions department. He is taking a new role within the company, piloting the Emergency Road Service Program, that will allow him to move to Las Vegas to be closer to his family and to work from home.
Bigham has embraced volunteerism. He is an avid supporter and current vice president of Bridgestone's Teammate Assistance Fund and is credited with creating the company's Disability Mentoring Day. He also has worked with Habitat for Humanity, made regular donations through the United Way, led fundraisers for breast cancer awareness and supports Junior Achievement.
Bigham even launched his own charity, the Stones Car Club. The organization holds various community events focused on raising funds and donating proceeds to charities of the board's choice. The group also encourages teens to drive safely and enroll in safety driving training courses.
Bigham received $5,000 along with the award, and at the presentation said he is donating the money to charities.