It was a dark and wet Tuesday night on Dec. 7, 2010, and Paul Thomson had just sat down at one of the computers at Semiahmoo House Society to surf the web.
It was a regular evening routine for Paul, as he enjoyed the quiet time by himself.
The last few years had been challenging for the lifelong Surrey resident. In October 2003, while driving home from work, Paul was overcome by a severe pain in his head. The details that followed remain a mystery to Paul, however he remembers waking up in hospital and being told he had been involved in a bad car accident.
While behind the wheel, Paul suffered an intracranial hemorrhage resulting in a build-up of blood in his skull that caused serious brain damage.
He spent three months in a coma and seven months in hospital learning how to eat, walk and talk again.
His battle back had been inspiring, but in recent years Paul had become more withdrawn, and his physical and mental progress seemed to plateau.
He found himself relishing evenings spent alone online, like on the wet, dark Tuesday just over a year ago.
But that night there was a commotion outside the computer room. A group of people had come in from the rain.
Paul wandered out into the hallway to say hello, and that’s when he first saw Carla.
Carla Henderson had arrived with her roommate to check out a weekly drop-in program for people living with an Acquired Brain Injury.
“I came out of the computer room and holy smokes, there was Carla,” says 48-year-old Paul with a laugh.
“Actually, I think I said to myself, ‘holy crap’. ”
Carla, 34, played it cool, but inside she felt butterflies.
“It was,” she says now, looking over at Paul through her oval-framed glasses, “magic. It felt like a dream.”
But before Paul had worked up enough courage to approach her, she was gone – a missed opportunity.
Or so he thought.
A week later, as the program was getting ready to host one of its bingo nights, the front door opened and there she was again.
“I couldn’t believe it,” says Paul. “I remembered her name. I’ve never remembered anyone’s name except Carla’s.”
Towards the end of the night, Paul discreetly asked his caregiver if he would be able to get Carla’s telephone number.
His caregiver suggested he give Carla his number and then she would be able to decide if she wanted to call him.
A week later she called. The two spoke for about an hour before Carla decided to offer up her own phone number to Paul.
“I can’t remember my own number, but I remember Carla’s,” he says.
• • •
Sitting next to one another in a small office at Semiahmoo House Society in Newton, Paul and Carla can’t look away from each other. Laughter fills the room as the two reminisce about how they met and how their love has grown. Just a few years ago, neither thought they would ever see this day.
Paul graduated from North Surrey Secondary in the early 1980s. He found work doing various jobs, from fast food clerk to construction labourer, often working more than one job.
But life as he knew it came to a halt in 2003 after the brain hemorrhage. Following years of rehabilitation, Paul now resides in a family support home as he is unable to live or work independently.
Carla had survived a similar tragedy. It was Jan. 12, 1993 and the then-15-year-old was a passenger in a car driving home with her two sisters after a night out at a friend’s.
The girls’ mother and father were on a cruise celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary when they received the call. Their daughters had been hit head-on by another young driver. The force of the collision killed Carla’s sister Tricia, 20. Her sister Krista, 18, suffered a broken femur and serious lacerations, while Carla suffered a severe head injury. The RCMP said it was a miracle anyone survived.
Carla spent 22 months in hospital. She remembers being told she would never walk, talk or breathe on her own, “but I showed them,” says Carla, who resides in an assisted living home in Langley and is learning to walk again.
She grieves the loss of her older sister, but knows life must go on.
“I can’t just stop living. I have Paul. I have a reason to live.”
• • •
This year, for Valentine’s Day, Paul has a special plan. For some time, he has wanted to give Carla an engagement ring, but on a limited disability income, he has been unable to find one he could afford.
With the help of Sylvia Hoeree, program coordinator at Semiahmoo House, Paul sent letters to several jewelers, hoping to get a deal on a ring.
Late last month, he received a response.
José and Company Custom Jewellers in South Surrey agreed to provide a ring to Paul at cost.
Although Paul could only afford $300, the jewelers at José’s designed a custom band of 14-karat white and yellow gold with one centre diamond and three diamonds on either side – a $1,200-$1,500 retail value.
“It touched me to see two people challenged in life, yet be able to extend a token of their love for each other,” says store owner José Latchinian (at left).
“I really wanted him to be proud of this. Actually, I feel honoured.”
Paul plans to propose to Carla today at Semiahmoo House Society.
He has her family’s blessing, and with the right support, the couple hopes to one day live together semi-independently.
“They both have had substantial improvements in their physical and cognitive rehabilitation since they met,” says Hoeree, “and will continue to do so due to the fact that they have set some amazing goals for their lives together.”
After a meeting at Semiahmoo House last week, as Paul wheeled Carla to a waiting car, one of the group members called out, “Goodnight you two and good luck.”
Carla answered back: “Thanks, but we don’t need luck. We’ve got each other.”