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After a life-altering bike crash, this group of volunteers proves that friendship and community are powerful medicine

Sergio and volunteers

When Sergio woke up in The Ottawa Hospital’s intensive care unit in September 2021, there were no friends or family at his bedside. A visiting professor at the University of Ottawa from Mexico, his support system was thousands of miles away.

While out exploring his new home city on a bike ride, Sergio had an accident which left him in a coma for several weeks. It also, tragically, paralyzed him from the neck down.

If you ask him about it today, Sergio will tell you that he didn’t think he would survive the first few weeks after the accident. They were grueling and would have been a challenge to do alone.

But he didn’t have to.

The visitors’ chairs next to Sergio’s bed weren’t empty for long. Shortly after he arrived at The Ottawa Hospital Civic Campus, a community blossomed around him, thanks in large part to a deeply caring group of people working in Volunteer Resources who made it their mission to ensure Sergio wouldn’t ever be alone again.

In the beginning, there was one volunteer named Eric

Eric McCrossin first met Sergio as he was coming out of his coma.

“At that point, they hadn’t reintroduced food or anything to him, so our first conversation was about Jell-O,” says Eric. “I had my jaw wired shut before, so I could empathize with what he was going through.”

Eric decided to take up volunteering at The Ottawa Hospital in his retirement. When Volunteer Resources Advisor Stephanie Bertrand reached out to Eric about a role on the Friendly Visits team, he was quick to jump onboard. Little did he know that he would soon be instrumental in helping to change the life of one of our patients.

Sergio with Eric McCrossin and his aunt Carmella at The Ottawa Hospital’s Civic Campus in late Fall, 2022.
Sergio with Eric McCrossin and his aunt Carmella at The Ottawa Hospital’s Civic Campus in late fall, 2022. Sergio would like to thank all of the staff and volunteers at the Civic Campus, with a special thanks to the team in the ICU.

Following the accident, it some took time for Sergio’s heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature to regulate. As a result, he couldn’t have a full conversation without fainting. As the months passed, he worked with respiratory therapists to learn how to breathe with assistance from a ventilator. As his breathing grew stronger, he could speak more easily.

With this new gift of conversation, he and Eric got to know each other and together laughed about his fainting. Sergio shared that he was in Ottawa as a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa. His area of expertise is artificial intelligence (AI), and his research explores how AI mimics human behaviour. He is an accomplished software developer, a swimmer, a gym-goer and a lover of “the beautiful game.” And before the accident, much of his time in Ottawa was spent sharing his expertise with students in the uOttawa Health Sciences program. 

In return, Eric shared stories about his travels, as well as home-baked meals. From there, a friendship just naturally blossomed.

“He is very positive and loves to laugh,” says Eric. “He is an amazing person.”

Once it was known that Sergio’s stay at the Civic Campus ICU would be long term, a team of volunteers got to work—ensuring that Sergio’s circle of friends grew.

Fast forward a month, and one friend became many

“We developed a schedule to make sure someone is here with him every day,” says Eric. “We also have a schedule of back-up people if someone is away.”

Janet McGee visits Sergio every Monday, Eric on Tuesdays, Trisha Paul-Carson on Wednesdays, Jane Lamb on Thursdays, Pascal Fallavo on Fridays, Richard Raymond on Saturdays, and Guillaume Bissonnette on Sundays. Sergio’s Aunt Carmella from Mexico would also start visiting Canada for six months at a time, spending six days a week at his bedside.

Their time with Sergio over the past 20 months has been punctuated with many memorable moments. Like the time that Trish made pineapple pie for Sergio, or when Eric helped to find a refrigerator for his room. Once, Richard brough Sergio a Wendy’s hamburger for lunch.

poster with photographs of volunteers unmasked faces.
The volunteers made Sergio’s birthday extra special this year by creating a poster with photographs of their unmasked faces—one of many special and thoughtful gestures from his friends.

They have also developed some important routines together. Guillaume watches YouTube videos with Sergio during his visits, Jane reads the newspaper, Pascal discusses AI progress, and Janet updates Sergio on the news. To make sure nobody misses a thing, regular emails are circulated among the group to keep everyone updated on Sergio’s wellbeing.

Sergio’s friends also include members from the Volunteer Resources team, who are always there to assist and who drop in to say hello whenever they can.

A very special birthday surrounded by friends

In November 2022, on Sergio’s birthday (his second in the Civic ICU), it became apparent just how many new friends he had made.

“It was cake after cake, and so many treats. Every department in the hospital that had a touchpoint with him showed up to wish him happy birthday,” Eric describes with wonder.

“From housekeeping to kitchen staff to the people that deliver medication. They all dropped in to say hello. It was just mind boggling to see all the departments come by.”

There is a reason Sergio has made so many friends at The Ottawa Hospital.

“When you meet him, he has the type of personality that you just fall into,” says Eric.

Ever since Sergio regained consciousness in September 2021, he has tried to remember the names of all the physicians, nurses and respiratory therapists who have cared for him. That’s more than 200 names he has stored in his mind.

“Everybody knows me, and I know everybody,” Sergio says with his trademark contagious grin. 

Technology makes the world a little bigger

To help Sergio keep in touch with his friends and family back home, the volunteers tracked down an iPad equipped with voice activation software. Sergio can now write emails and browse the Internet.

Sergio also has access to a laptop set up for him by Pascal, the University of Ottawa professor who visits every Friday. Using a special device, Sergio can operate it using puffs of air from his mouth. This computer and his friendship with Pascal are a gateway back into his passion.

“On Friday afternoon, we talk about research and perspectives because I want to keep him involved in our projects here at the university,” says Pascal, an associate professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences. Sergio came to Canada to share his AI expertise with Pascal’s lab. “I really value his opinions on the mentorship of students and research directions. It’s important to me that he continues to stay involved.”

“This began as a professional relationship because we did not know each other, but that professional relationship grew through COVID and then up until the accident. And I’ve been with him ever since.” 

“It’s a good thing,” says Sergio. “Our talks keeps me sharp.”

He demonstrates how he accesses YouTube using voice command—in Spanish, because the English voices in the ICU were interfering too much.

“Before, I used to do more activities and then suddenly, life changes from one day to the other.”  He takes a breath and smiles. “It seems to me that a human being can adjust to anything.”  


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