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Telling his own story

Coralie Bridle and her son Sam
Posted June 18, 2018

When Coralie Bridle resuscitated her own three-month-old son Samuel, she knew their world had changed forever. Ever since, Coralie has been her son’s mouthpiece, helping him tell his own story.

‘Coralie Bridle will never forget the day that her world shifted on its axis—the day she resuscitated her own baby. She’ll never forget the moment she heard him cry again, knowing in that instant that her son was changed forever.

Until then, Coralie’s life had gone more or less as predicted. Born to officer parents, Coralie grew up in The Salvation Army. She lists her early spiritual journey as attending church, making a faith commitment, soldiership, ‘the whole nine yards’.
At 18, she trained as a nurse and, by the time she was 21, was nursing in an oncology unit. Her husband Kevin was a teacher, working with intellectually disabled students. ‘I remember going to visit and feeling very intimidated. It was not a comfortable part of my world,’ recalls Coralie. When she was training as a nurse, she had a placement at Mangere Hospital, working with IHC clients, ‘and hated it’.

Then, when Coralie fell pregnant, they eagerly anticipated their first child. The birth was not easy. After a prolonged labour, the baby was in some distress so they were rushed into an emergency C-section. A beautiful boy was born to them, and they named him Samuel.

Mother's Day, 1989

This is when Coralie suddenly becomes animated about her faith journey. Coming up to 30 years ago, their family embarked on a journey that would cause her to question the nature of suffering, humanity and God as she knew him. For Coralie, this was when her faith was deepened and widened and stretched.

Coralie instantly recalls the date: 12 May 1989. They had been out for dinner and three-month-old Sam had fallen asleep in his crib-style pram. They put the buggy in the nursery and let him sleep. ‘I firmly believe that I was sent back into the room,’ recalls Coralie. ‘I thought, “I’ll just go and pop him into his cot”. So I went back to move him, and that’s when I found him with his head rolled back and not breathing.

‘I resuscitated him at home, while Kevin was calling an ambulance, and he was rushed to hospital.’

Deep down, says Coralie, she already knew that life had changed. ‘As we got Sam into the ambulance, he started to cry. I had heard that cry before when I was nursing at Mangere Hospital, and I just knew that Sam’s way of engaging with the world had moved into a different space in that moment.’

In hospital, Sam began to have seizures and was put on life support. He was not expected to live. They were harrowing, tumultuous days. ‘I remember making the prayer of, “I’ll have him back on any terms”, and my father saying, “Be careful what you pray for”,’ recalls Coralie.

It was Mother’s Day, and a decision had to be made. ‘Mother’s Day is still something I struggle with to this day,’ adds Coralie. They went for a walk, having to decide when to take Sam off life support, and whether to elect for ‘extreme measures’ or let nature take its course. They opted to let nature take its course. ‘So Sam came off life support and he started breathing on his own, and 30 years later, he’s still breathing on his own!’ laughs Coralie.

He was left with significant disabilities—technically speaking, he has spastic quadriplegia, epilepsy, and cortical blindness. This means he is in a wheelchair, has no purposeful movement, is non-verbal and is unable to interpret what he is seeing.

‘I remember being told, “We just have to wait for Sam to tell his own story”, because no one knew what kind of recovery he was going to make,’ says Coralie. It was literally one day at a time, as they waited for Sam’s story to reveal itself. Growth milestones were met, but developmental milestones were missed.

A miracle

Coralie recalls a ‘defining moment’ when she was driving back into the grounds of Mangere Hospital, where she had nursed intellectually disabled patients. This time, she was driving through the gates as a parent, with a child that needed their help.

There were times of grief, stress, relief … ‘Yes, there were seasons of all of this,’ says Coralie. But she also remembers a deep sense that her prayers had been answered.

‘We were very supported through it, we had really good, close friends around us who were just fabulous, and the corps was fabulous,’ says Coralie. A warm memory is holding a thanksgiving prayer meeting—to thank their friends for their support, and thank God that Sam had been restored to them.

‘There was this sense of thanksgiving that we had the opportunity to bring Sam home, and that was a miracle.

I do believe Sam was given back to us, but the dust of his personhood had been slightly rearranged.

‘I found that I loved my child, so I started to understand the power of unconditional love,’ says Coralie. ‘I loved him for who he was, not because he could coo or say, “Yes mummy”.’

It also strengthened their marriage. ‘Often in these circumstances, you can turn away from each other, but Kevin and I turned towards each other, so it actually made our relationship stronger. Kevin has been intimately involved with all of Sam’s care for the whole of his life, and as I’ve done more and more study in these latter years, Kevin has actually become his primary carer.’

Meanwhile, they made a decision to expand their family—so Caleb was born, then Sarah. The next years were mostly busy raising a family, parenting and ‘just getting on with things’.

Telling his story

But as their children got older, Coralie was given the opportunity to write for War Cry and attended a writers’ conference in Washington. ‘I don’t get visions,’ explains Coralie. ‘But there was a prayer meeting and I had a very clear picture of the Bible College of New Zealand [now Laidlaw], and I had a sense that I had to shore up some biblical foundations.’

So Coralie stepped into what would become the next defining season of her life, as a student of theology. While studying, she found that questions about her son—his disability and his spirituality—ignited a sense of holy discontent.

‘Underlying all this was what doctors had said right at the beginning, that we had to wait for Sam to tell his own story.

I felt that if anyone was going to tell his story, it had to be me, because he can’t speak. It started raising all these questions for me in terms of faith: if he can’t speak or give assent to salvation, can he be saved? If he can’t go up to the mercy seat and make a confession of faith, what does that mean for his salvation?’

Prayer and confession are valid, adds Coralie, but we need to expand our understanding of salvation. ‘Jesus has achieved salvation objectively for the whole world, and it’s how we participate in that salvation that is different for different people. So, for someone like Sam, who is non-verbal, I firmly believe that Spirit speaks to spirit. I believe the Holy Spirit communes with Sam in a way that is perhaps more direct and less mediated than our own.’

Perhaps most of all, Sam embodies unconditional love. ‘He loves and trusts as much as I do, probably more. He totally embodies dependence—that leaning on the Saviour. He embodies patience and perseverance. He embodies a certain dignity that shows the face of God, as well.’

And, Coralie adds, ‘He’s adorable—that’s the thing you get. To the outside world he may not look as adorable as the next person but, as a parent, you don’t see that because you’re so connected with who this person is.’

In this way, Sam serves as a beautiful mirror of how God sees us, his creation. ‘I even see his spiritual connection with his father, when Kevin leans over him and whispers, and has special songs that he sings to him. Sam stills right down and giggles—even a giggle for me is a mark of his personhood and his spirituality.’ We are made whole by the love of our Father, who rejoices over us with singing (Zephaniah 3:17).

What is a person?

One of the questions raging above most of our heads is: What makes someone a ‘person’? Peter Singer, for example, is an ethics writer who argues that some people are sentient [responsive to stimulus] but are not rational—and are therefore not persons.

This may seem irrelevant to most of us, but it has implications for who we believe—as a society—deserves care and dignity. Our concept of what makes someone a ‘person’ influences our beliefs about everything—from abortion to euthanasia, from who deserves medical treatment, to who deserves a food parcel.

Some beliefs about ‘personhood’ write Sam off as not deserving of dignity, human rights and care. ‘What makes Samuel a human being?’ asks Coralie. ‘At its essence, Sam, like all of us, is created in the image of God and therefore of worth and value. It’s not what we can do as people that matters to God, in the first instance, it’s our very being that matters. It’s who we are as part of God’s good creation—we are loved always and forever.’

‘Just because the dust of Sam’s physicality has been rearranged, does not mean he is loved any less. It doesn’t make him less of a person.’

Despite this deeply Christian belief in the dignity of all people, Coralie says that Christian attitudes have sometimes worked against people with disabilities. This year, she has embarked on a PhD, hoping to develop a theological model of disability. 

‘I am conscious that in the wider church, people with a disability can be seen as “embodied signifiers of the fall”—people with disabilities represent to us our falleness, sin and decay … so then it becomes hard to welcome and embrace
the disabled.’

New theologies are helping us see disability not as a distraction from our true personhood, but as part of our personhood. ‘This is a complete counter argument to disability as a signifier of the fall. Disability is another way of being human,’ reflects Coralie. ‘There is something lacking in our expression of the body of Christ if we don’t have disabled people among us.’

So, does that mean it was God’s will that Sam would become disabled? Coralie gives a passionate response: ‘Absolutely not. I don’t believe it was God’s will because I don’t believe God causes suffering in order to bring us into a relationship with him.

‘If we stay yoked and connected to God and a faith community, then he brings good out of it—but thinking that we were “chosen” to suffer because we might make a good fist of it, just makes me feel nauseous. We live as part of a fallen world so challenging stuff happens to everybody—just like the sun rises on everybody, everyday.’

Coralie laughs at herself: ‘That was vehement,’ she says. She is a passionate voice for her son, as she continues to tell his story. And she is a prophetic voice to the church, challenging us to see everyone as worthy of knowing God—just as we are all known by God.

by Ingrid Barratt (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 16 June 2018, pp6-9. You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.