Craig Bimler family

Craig Bimler, recovering from a C4-C5 vertebrae injury, is joined by his wife and three children, from left: Cruz, Kelly, Coyer and Mackenzie.

A “Defying the Odds” benefit to help Craig Bimler and his family with unexpected medical expenses will be held in Choteau Aug. 31 and Sept. 1.

Craig, 39, and his wife, Kelly (a Choteau native) were in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, with their three kids (ages 14, 5 and 3) for a family vacation during Easter break when Craig dove into the ocean from the beach to swim with his daughter, Mackenzie. In a simple action that he had done multiple times before, he hit a sandbar, broke the C4 and C5 vertebrae in his neck and nearly drowned.

With the help of a couple doctors who happened to be vacationing at the beach at the same time, Craig was carried out of the water and revived by CPR.

“It took about 15 to 20 minutes for the ambulance to arrive, but it felt like an eternity,” said Kelly. “We had no idea how long he went without oxygen, and his heart stopped twice. It’s a miracle that he’s alive and doesn’t have any brain damage.”

The ambulance took Craig to a nearby hospital, where he was stabilized for two days, before being flown to an intensive care unit in San Diego.

“He was practically on life support. He had pneumonia so bad from the sea water in his lungs that they couldn’t even do the surgery on his neck for 35 days,” said Kelly.

After spending 55 days in San Diego, Craig was transferred to Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colorado, which specializes in spinal cord injury rehabilitation. There, he is doing a variety of physical therapy techniques, including training with water, video simulators and a locomat (an automated treadmill that uses robotic legs to support a person’s weight while it retrains leg muscles to walk). He expects to be discharged on Aug. 22, after which he will stay in Colorado a few more weeks to pursue outpatient therapy and regain as much strength and mobility as he can. As of now, he is speaking, breathing and eating on his own and he has control of his arms and one finger, and is beginning to be able to extend his wrists and have movement in his toes and his left leg.

“Craig has always been a very motivated person, and he’s good at what he does. He’s got a lot of strengths. He’s driven. That’s how I would describe him: driven. I know he’ll work hard at this and accomplish a lot,” said Lorry Rasmussen, Craig’s mother-in-law and one of the organizers of the benefit.

The funds raised from the benefit will help the Bimler family with medical bills, continuing physical therapy in Great Falls, purchasing a handicap-accessible van and modifying their home in Great Falls to accommodate a wheelchair.

“It’s definitely opened our eyes to living in the moment and being more grateful for every day, appreciating everything and everybody more,” said Kelly. “You just don’t realize how fast things can happen. At one moment, we were having the times of our lives on the beach with our family. I blink my eyes and now our life has changed forever.”

The Bimlers are very appreciative of the community’s help. Rasmussen, Samantha Yeager (Kelly’s friend from high school) and Michelle Rogers (the wife of Craig’s high school classmate, Curtis) are the main organizers of the benefit. Craig’s stepfather, his dad and Kelly’s dad are all working now to modify the Bimler house. All the grandparents have stepped up to take care of the kids while Craig and Kelly are away. Studio Barre in Great Falls, an exercise studio that Kelly is a member of, has raised about $4,000 for the Bimlers through selling tank tops, hosting a donation class and even receiving donations from strangers at Studio Barre locations in other states. Choteau’s Mountain View Campground is pledging 20% of their proceeds during the weekend of the benefit to the cause. As of Aug. 19, various donors had raised $57,605 out of a goal of $100,000 for the family’s “Support for Craig Bimler” GoFundMe page.

“It’s really all about the community effort. Everyone is helping out and volunteering where they can, it’s great,” said Yeager.

“I can’t say enough about the support we’ve had from family, friends and people we don’t even know,” said Kelly.

Once he returns to Great Falls, Craig plans to continue physical therapy. His life will be changed in many ways, but he plans on returning to work as soon as possible at a job he’s very passionate about: being the general manager at the Great Falls Honda dealership.

Rogers says aside from people coming to the benefit and donating, the organizers hope to see more golfers for the golf tournament. Registration is $35 per person. Golfers can register by calling the Choteau Country Club at 466-2020. “Our intentions are to make this an annual benefit, in the hopes of money being donated to other people in need in the future,” said Rogers.

“We are all so thankful for everyone. It has been amazing, the prayers and help we’ve all gotten, and how much we are supported. And Craig, how appreciative he is! He’s fighting because of all the support he’s gotten, that’s what is inspiring him. Every day is another miracle,” said Rasmussen.