LAFAYETTE, La. -- Don Briggs looked death squarely in the eye and decided this: It looked OK, even welcome.
That was his view from where he rested in hospital beds in North Carolina, Louisiana and Texas as he made a painstakingly slow recovery from a brutal, Sept. 30 accidental fall in his vacation home in the North Carolina mountains. The fall resulted in a traumatic brain injury, rendering him largely helpless, in ceaseless pain, and wondering if things would ever change.
Briggs, 76, president of the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association, was unaccustomed to lying still, unaccustomed to not being in charge, unaccustomed to depending on the skill and care of others. By nature, he’s a take-charge guy. Largely inert in hospital beds, he wondered if he’d ever be in charge of his own life again. Death? There seemed to be worse options.
Nowadays, not six months after that life-threatening tumble down a stairwell, he stands erect, speaks forcefully, walks carefully but with certainty. He downed most of his breakfast at a Lafayette restaurant this week, and alternately talked astutely about the state of the energy industry and passionately about a deeper, more committed faith life.
“I would not go back to being the old Don Briggs,” he said.
Briggs’ friends, who are fiercely loyal, would tell you plainly that the old Don Briggs was just fine: committed, informed, passionate about his life in oil and gas. He was also funny but thoughtful, the type of guy who would leave personal gifts in the guest rooms at his vacation spot, which is what he was doing when he took his fateful fall. Each of those staying in the guest rooms would have found flowers and a book about St. Teresa of Calcutta.
“What touched you about Mother Teresa is each day she would pick out a person to save,” Briggs said of the nun who spent her life tending to the wretched and despairing. An author and photographer who worked with St. Teresa told him that. “That is what we are here for, to love our fellow man, to help people who have less than us.”
But first, Don Briggs had to save himself.
Those Mother Teresa books were left behind when first responders spirited him through the woods and onto a helicopter that took him to Asheville. Mother Teresa’s message? He took that with him. He holds it in his heart, even today.
“I don’t remember that part of it,” he said.
It may be just as well. His wife, Nanette, remembers, and it was awful, she said.
The injury tore his head open, left him unable to speak or walk or swallow. Over the long course of his care, he developed pneumonia and other maladies related to spending too much time in too many hospitals.
There was a sinister visitor, too: a test to his personal faith. Trapped in a series of hospital beds, he grew suspicious of others, including those in charge of his care. He grew frustrated with his new, loathsome limitations. He wanted to die, he said.
“I didn’t have any hope,” he recalls now. “I was afraid. I was depressed. I was in tremendous pain. I had a traumatic brain injury.”
He knew this much: The journey from Mission Health Hospital in Asheville to Lafayette to TIRR Herman Memorial Hospital and later Mentis Neuro Health in Houston had left him weary and wondering. He needed faith. He needed a sign if he was going to get better.
He got one.
Awaiting surgery on his skull, he reached deep inside his soul to answer his own doubts. He knew he lacked faith that Jesus would help him through prayers. He said Jesus came to him in his rest and assured him that he was with him. He felt that presence.
"I have faith," Briggs, a Catholic convert, told himself as he awaited surgery, a "recap" to replace the top of his head. "I have faith. I have faith. I have faith."
Moments passed, as he awaited that crucial surgery. Perhaps a minute, maybe two. His cell phone buzzed and a text message from a Louisiana state senator, a treasured friend, followed:
Pope Francis was celebrating Mass in his name at St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome, the senator wrote, praying for Briggs' recovery.
Minutes later, Briggs was headed for surgery, not suspicious or angry or confused about anything.
"When I read that text, I knew Jesus was answering me," Briggs said. It was, he said, life-affirming. Where he had felt fear he now felt courage. Where he sensed doubt, he said, he had faith.
"I can take on anything now," he felt, en route to surgery. He feels that still.
He's spent the better part of a month at his Lafayette home. Long committed to fitness, he works out, walks, swims. Therapy is ongoing but so is progress. Some days, he walks the half-mile to early-morning, daily Mass and the half-mile home.
Recovery, he said, has amazed his doctors. His wife — "an angel," he said — stayed by his side, took an apartment near the hospital in Houston. His daughter and son stayed when they could. So did his brother, sister and friends at different times.
His speech is better. His balance is returning. He rides his bike, but wears a helmet. He lost 45 pounds, but has an appetite.
"Last night I went to Marcello's," he said. "I had the mac and cheese, and a big, ol' redfish. I had some of the ravioli my wife didn't finish."
Recently, he saw old friend Bishop Glen John Provost, formerly the pastor at St. John the Evangelist Cathedral in Lafayette but now assigned to Lake Charles.
"'Don Briggs, you are a miracle,'" Provost said. Briggs says he knows well about miracles.
His hope is restored, Briggs said, and he has plans. He'd love to write a book on being a grandparent. He'd love to establish a nonprofit to provide help and advocacy for hospital patients. There is no shortage of energy-related issues he wants to champion. He sees a bright future for LOGA and for the industry.
"My faith, I would not give up for anything," he said. "I believe Jesus will help you if you ask him.
"Part of my mission, I want to help people who are as lost as I was," Briggs said, recalling his darkest days in the hospital.
He doesn't think about dying, not anymore. He thinks about living.