Calls from friends, electronic posts helping coach keep spirits up during rehabilitation

It started just as a cross-country trip to celebrate his grandson's first birthday and play a little golf. It ended with former St. Helens High football coach Wes Bigham in the hospital with a broken back from a motor vehicle accident and a long-term recovery.

'I'm hanging in there,' Bigham said from his hospital bed, following a second surgery. 'I'm working in the rehab facility and getting better, but still have a long ways to go.'

The accident happened on March 22, and Bigham underwent back surgery to repair six cracked vertebrae. A couple weeks later he was back in the hospital for another surgery to remove an infection.

Bigham, 65, and his wife of 43 years, Jan, were in Duluth, Ga., to visit their daughter Gail, her husband Ed, and celebrate their grandsons' first birthday.

The accident happened when the coach was on his way to play golf, and traffic slowed for a funeral procession. He was about to turn into the golf course, when a dump truck driver gunned his vehicle past a slowed semi-truck and rear-ended his pick-up truck. The collision pushed the bed of Bigham's truck up to the rear axles.

'I'm really lucky I'm not a quadriplegic,' Bigham said. He chuckled that his golf driver and bag were ruined, but those and the truck will eventually be replaced when his condition improves.

Following his second surgery, Bigham is back in rehab. He has a brace that keeps his head completely immobile. He said he's walking with a cane and doing a lot of stairs.

He said he receives phone calls from several longtime friends, and his wife monitors hundreds of e-mails and Facebook well wishes.

Bigham came to St. Helens from Rainierin 1984, where he'd been the football coach and athletic director. He was fresh off an appearance in the state championship football game in 1983 where Rainier lost to Central, 13-7. He took St. Helens to three championship games, winning two. The team lost to Hood River valley 15-10 in 1989, then beat The Dalles 53-7 in 1992. The team topped Ontario in 1996, 21-20, winning on a punt return by Josh Goff with just 1:30 to go in the game.

He retired in 2002. He was AD in Rainier for 10 years, and before that taught in Crater for five years.

Bigham said the initial surgery went fairly well, but one vertebrae (C-1) was left untouched.

'They very seldom try to repair that particular one,' Bigham noted, 'They hope the vertebrae will rebuild itself.'

The recovery process is long and there is some doubt he will ever be able to drive again. He plans on staying in Georgia for the rehabilitation, reasoning that he doesn't want to have to fly back and forth if something goes wrong. He said he didn't eat for five days after the accident and has lost 25 pounds. He's been on an IV from the later surgery, but feels it went well. His vital signs are good.

Overall, Bigham is upbeat about his prospects for recovery. He was a beloved coach in St. Helens and he's heard from many former players and students. He's maintained his sense of humor and hopes to return home in a few months.

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