At age 34, Jason Crigler was a rising star in New York City's East Village music scene. He was awaiting his first CD release and expecting a new baby with his wife, Monica. Meanwhile, he had plenty of gigs, both as a backup guitarist for such popular performers as John Cale, Marshall Crenshaw and Linda Thompson and as a performer in his own right. It was during one of these latter shows in the summer of 2004 that Jason abruptly fled the stage in pain and confusion. Later, in the emergency room, Monica and the rest of the couple's family learned the awful truth: The young, healthy musician had suffered a life-threatening brain hemorrhage. In the opinion of the doctors, even if Jason made it through the night, he would remain in a vegetative state.
In the face of this daunting medical pronouncement, and after Jason did make it through the night, Monica and the Crigler clan took a courageous decision — they would believe in Jason and, joining forces, conduct an intensive, round-the-clock care and rehabilitation program to bring him back to the life they believed was still in him. As poignantly documented in the new documentary Life. Support. Music., by Jason's friend, filmmaker Eric Daniel Metzgar (The Chances of the World Changing, POV 2007), the Crigler family didn't just confound the doctors and conventional wisdom about what can be accomplished for brain-damaged people — they even astounded themselves.
"I was whisked away in an ambulance and that's the last thing I remember for a year and a half" is the way Jason remembers the ordeal portrayed in Life. Support. Music. But for Monica (who would give birth to a girl, Ellie, during that time) and the couple's families — the Criglers and, on Monica's side, the Cohens — it was a time of intense activity, tight schedules, setbacks, constant worry and dedicated optimism in the face of seemingly impossible odds. Friends also lent a hand, and musicians Norah Jones, Crenshaw, Thompson and others held benefits. But nothing could replace the collective effort at extended, round-the-clock rehabilitation — which few brain-damage victims can have — provided by Jason's extended family.
What amazes is not just the effort the family mounted, but their unwavering belief in Jason's full recovery. "Scientifically, he wasn't there," says Dr. Christopher Carter, who treated Jason. But the family always believed he was there.
Weaving early footage shot by the staff of Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston showing Jason's first excruciatingly slow steps at rehabilitation and home movies taken after he came home with the agonized reflections of Jason's family, doctors and friends, Metzgar has crafted a painful yet poetic account of his friend's return from nowhere. If anything, the early footage seems to confirm the doctors' expectations — Jason looks mentally absent, with serious motor-function impairments.
When Jason was at Spaulding, the family arranged to visit him daily to supplement the staff's efforts. Upon his release — and against the advice of some specialists — the family decided to care for him at home in Cambridge, Mass., near his wife's parents' residence, rather than place him in a nursing facility. At that point, the $1 million cap on Jason's medical insurance had been reached, and while the family awaited a decision on a pending Medicaid application, they were essentially on their own in providing for his care.
Once Jason got home — the point at which most brain-damaged people are considered to have recovered as much as they are able — the family continued their constant rounds of care, rehabilitation and stimulation. Progress was slow and set-backs were devastating, yet the family's optimism shines through in the film. The moment Jason picked up a guitar and began to play again was the milestone that seemed to validate the family's faith. For Jason, it was both a thrilling and bittersweet return to music. "I had trouble connecting," he says in the film.
Then, at Jason's first concert in New York after his injury, something clicked and he suddenly connected with the music. "It's the first gig I played that I felt really good," he later said. That was the moment, a year and a half after his brain hemorrhage, when things turned around.
At an extraordinary get-together afterwards, the family members recall the journey they have taken together with some degree of astonishment as well as quiet relief. Though they allow that Jason might be 90% recovered, and that the effort to achieve full recovery will continue, they realize their collective effort has succeeded against all odds — and transformed their own ideas of family and faith.
"I knew Jason before this tragedy struck," says filmmaker Metzger. "I got a call — 'Jason's in the hospital. It's touch and go.' A few hours later I was looking down at Jason on a hospital bed.
"For months, I was in the email loop, receiving occasional updates about Jason's condition, Monica's pregnancy, the surgeries, the setbacks. But these updates, sent by the Criglers to their vast web of friends, were more than just informational. There was an incandescent love in these letters. Later, when the Criglers asked if I would consider making a documentary about the whole saga, I knew their beautiful optimism amid the heaps of suffering would be the story. Of course, I underestimated the entire thing."
Life. Support. Music. is a production of Merigold Moving Pictures.