Against the Odds: Rob Cairns’ long journey home

It’s a day Rob Cairns will always remember.

"Dec. 9, 2007," he said.

However, it is a moment in time, he’d prefer to forget.

Cairns was 37 years old, a father of two, up after midnight working in the basement.  He was installing a sound system, so his young son and daughter could watch their TV shows in the morning.

"I stubbed my toe and I went head first into the entertainment unit," said Cairns.  "And when I did that, it sounded like a thousand knuckles cracking and I woke up on the floor."

For hours, Cairns was alone in the dark, drifting in and out of consciousness.

"I went to move myself and I couldn’t. Tried to pull myself up, my arms. Nothing," he said.

Cairns had broken his neck and would undergo seventeen hours of surgery.  He would survive, but his injury was life-changing.

"They knew I was a quadriplegic because the C5 and C6 looked like a road map. It was just shattered," said Cairns.

For close to two years, he would be in hospitals, rehab centres and long-term care.

"I was 22 months in hospital in total before I got my first apartment," Cairns said.

Cairns’ life began again, but in August 2019, he had an infection.  When his health deteriorated, he was placed on a ventilator to keep him alive.

"I was 216 days in the ICU," said Cairns.

His condition deemed "chronic", Cairns was admitted to Bruyère Continuing Care, home to a specialized program of care for patients with long-term ventilation needs.

"We had expectations we would keep him comfortable, but I don’t think we anticipated he’d go home," said Paula Doering, a senior VP of Clinical Programs at Bruyère.

Cairns had other plans, and he was tenacious in pursuing them. He wanted to go home and urged the team at Bruyère to wean him off the vent.

"They had never taken anyone off a ventilator," said Cairns.

"And he pushed our team to say, 'You know I want to get off this thing and you’re going to help me do it,'" said Doering with a smile.

With courage, and extraordinary efforts by Cairns and his caregivers at Bruyère, the vent was successfully removed.

"I had tears in my eyes for Rob," said Doering, her voice breaking with emotion. 

"I was just so proud of Rob and proud of our whole team. It was a first," she said.

After one year and one week, the patient who many believed went to Bruyère to die, went home to live.

"I remember leaving my room and all the nurses were lined up," said Cairns.

"They were clapping their hands and cheering. When I got outside, and the sun hit my face it was like ooooh this is freedom. It felt unbelievable," he said.

Today Cairns lives happily and quite independently in a Barrhaven apartment, customized to his needs.

"It’s a fresh start," said Cairns.

As he opens an oven door to begin cooking a meal, he smiles.

"I haven’t been able to do this in thirteen years," Cairns said.

Cooking is one of many things Cairns can do in the apartment on his own.  Wider doorways, remote openers, and lower countertops make for a space that has vastly improved his quality of life.  

Stores, shopping and his two children are nearby.

There are support workers on site who help Cairns get in and out of bed and assist him when he needs to shower.  But to a great degree, Cairns’ customized space means he and service dog, Daphne can enjoy the simple pleasures of home.

"I’m not ready for long-term care and they’re not ready for me because I like to do my own thing," said Cairns.

Fifty-one-year-old Cairns is ready to live. And given all he’s been through, he says that’s everything.

"Why should I sit in the chair and let the world go by," said Cairns.

"I just have gained four hundred pounds of metal.  I’m still Rob Cairns."