Denis Turcotte did not make it onto Oprah.
He and wife Alrae did better.
Rather than fleeting exposure on national television, the Tillsonburg couple are moving forward together in a newly-renovated and accessible house, with broad-based long-term support from their community.
Denis was snorkelling in Belize April 21, 2008 when a passing boat collided with him, changing his world in a fraction of a second. Left with a traumatic brain injury, paralyzed on his right side, with a massive injury to his left leg and aphasia (an inability to communicate verbally), the former manager of Tillsonburg District Memorial Hospital's diagnostic imaging centre spent three weeks in a Miami hospital, four months in London's Health Sciences Centre and another three in TDMH before being released to home by Dr. Barry Roth prior to Christmas of that year.
Denis' physical challenges required the purchase of a wheelchair van, lift and power wheelchair, which along with required household renovations exhausted the couple's savings. By 2010, Denis' diagnosis was downgraded, indicating long-term status quo.
"We were under the impression he would eventually be able to stand," said Alrae. "He's stable, but he's not going to get any better than he is."
The couple's long-term plans changed with this updated prognosis. With limited ability to travel, the focus became shared functional and accessible living space. Alrae does receive two hours per day of CCAC support for bathing and exercise, but with the additional challenge of having both knees replaced, Alrae is essentially Denis' full-time caregiver.
"The other 22 hours in the day, I'm it."
In response to the Turcottes' ongoing plight, Project Ripple was formed and ultimately raised a welcome $10,000 in October, 2012 for upgrades to Denis' wheelchair and contribution to an ongoing household renovations account. Beyond those tangible improvements and positive publicity, the effort also gave Alrae a welcome inspirational boost.
"I was kind of at a low at that point."
Subsequent support came from her father, whose $20,000 contribution boosted the renovations account to where Alrae was able to secure a renovations loan. She met with Bamford Homes in October, 2012 following a phone call from Denis' friend Brent McKay to John Bamford, regarding the situation. Bamford Homes is a local company co-owned by two couples, including Financial Officer/Sales Manager Brenda Smith, who had read Kristine Jean's story on the Turcottes in The Tillsonburg News, and accompanied John Bamford for an initial meeting in which Alrae presented her vision.
"It actually ended up being more like $90,000 of renovations," Alrae admitted with a laugh.
That total went further due to two major factors: not only did Bamford Homes accept a reduced fee for its services, management also extended a personal appeal to its tradespeople.
"We went to them all and said 'we've got this one job we're going to do this year and we'd like you all to help us out,'" said Smith.
The response was such - many providing service at cost - that Bamford Homes took out a half-page ad in the Wednesday, November 27 edition of The Tillsonburg Independent News to thank 17 local tradespeople celebrating the shared nature of the renovation's completion.
"It was a group project and we wanted to thank them because they all went above and beyond," Smith explained.
Renovations began in April, 2013 and due to the fact Denis and Alrae lived in their home throughout, proceeded in stages through completion this September.
"The workmen were absolutely wonderful," said Alrae, noting Denis took the process in stride. "There were nail guns shooting right next to his head and he slept through everything."
She also appreciated the local nature of the tradespeople.
"I'm a firm believer in 'shopping locally.'"
The renovation has essentially opened up the Turcottes' modest Broadway home into accessible one-floor living with wide-open doorways suitable for Denis' power wheelchair. What formerly was a small bathroom is currently a walk - or roll-in - closet; their old dining room a large, open bathroom and shower; a 200-square-foot addition a fully accessible kitchen which hosted 13 family members for this past Thanksgiving.
"It was great," said Alrae.
The couple's washer and dryer has been moved to the main floor; and the staircase modified to be more user-friendly. The couple's son installed a large deck at the rear of their home as part of the renovation, and the Tillsonburg Knights of Columbus contributed funds for a wheelchair lift providing access in and out of the house.
"Denis has total accessibility to the main floor of the house," said Alrae, for whom a simple 'thank you' is not expressive enough for support which has led to a renovation effectively opening up Denis' world so the two can travel through the balance of their life together.
"I'm very thankful and pleased with the whole process," Alrae concluded. "The design, the building and the finished results - perfect for our needs."
"We're pleased that it worked out so well for Alrae and Denis," said Smith, whose broken ankle several years ago helped, on some level, to sensitize her to the Turcottes' situation. "When things like this happen, it happens to both of you.
"It was about Denis, but it's also about Alrae - she's the hero."