Home at last

Scott Fin­lay was just 21 when a ski ac­ci­dent left him with a dev­as­tat­ing brain in­jury. His par­ents’ strug­gle to find sup­port­ive care was cat­a­pulted onto the pub­lic’s radar in what late Star re­porter Randy Stark­man called his favourite story. Yes­ter­day, th


One morn­ing five months ago, Rose­mary Fin­lay woke up and made por­ridge for her son Scott, just as she’s done ev­ery morn­ing for nearly four decades.

Only he wasn’t in the liv­ing room to eat it.

“She for­got,” says her hus­band Hugh Fin­lay, laugh­ing at the mem­ory. “She thought he was still here. It was a big, big change for us.”

The day be­fore, on April 10, their 61-year-old son had fi­nally moved into the sup­port­ive home that they, along with the Cana­dian ski com­mu­nity and other sup­port­ers, had worked tire­lessly to have built.

Scott Fin­lay was a promis­ing 21-year-old ski racer when he suf­fered a dev­as­tat­ing brain in­jury in a ski crash at the 1978 Cana­dian cham­pi­onships in Lake Louise, Alta., that left him al­most com­pletely par­a­lyzed and un­able to speak.

For most of his life since, Rose­mary has cared for him in the liv­ing room of their home just out­side Na­pa­nee, 40 kilo­me­tres west of Kingston.

He was in the cen­tre of the home — and the cen­tre of their lives.

“Some­one said he should have a bed­room and we said ‘no thanks, this is great,’ ” Hugh Fin­lay says. “He was part of our fam­ily all the time.”

Which is why leav­ing him for the first time at his new sup­port­ive home, known as The Fin­lay House, was achingly dif­fi­cult. “It was a tear­jerker for us,” he says. But they couldn’t have been hap­pier for their son.

The Fin­lay House, now home to Scott and five oth­ers with ac­quired brain in­juries, is in a retro­fit­ted wing of an ex­ist­ing health com­plex in Na­pa­nee, which means all the med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties from den­tal to phys­io­ther­apy are on site. The home is funded by the lo­cal health net­work and ad­di­tional fam­ily-paid fees and op­er­ated by Path­ways to In­de­pen­dence, so there are daily ac­tiv­i­ties and trips.

Hugh Fin­lay has high praise for the “ter­rific” staff, but notes they’re no match for Scott’s charms. “He’s suck­ing them right in,” he says. “They like his big blue eyes.”

Scott’s room is full of ski team pho­tos and mem­o­ries of his life be­fore his ac­ci­dent and, of course, it is painted golden yel­low. “We asked him what colour he wanted and he said gold,” Hugh says. “He was al­ways reach­ing for gold.”

His race bibs from all those years of chas­ing the top step of the podium have been trans­formed into a spec­tac­u­lar quilt by the lo­cal farm­house com­mu­nity quil­ters. The yel­low No. 11 bib he was wear­ing on Feb. 24, 1978, sits in the mid­dle. That’s the day his dream of a ski ca­reer — and very nearly his life — ended on a set of bumps known as Dou­ble Trou­ble.

He was ski­ing hard, look­ing for a spot on the na­tional team in the Crazy Canucks era of Ken Read and Steve Pod­borski, and came into that treach­er­ous spot on the hill at 110 km/h. It was too much speed and he lost con­trol over the first bump. He was out of po­si­tion when he hit the sec­ond one and that threw him into a back­ward spin. His head snapped back and smashed against the icy slope, knock­ing him un­con­scious, and hor­ri­fied spec­ta­tors watched as he con­tin­ued to tum­ble down the steep hill.

Scott Fin­lay’s life was frozen in time that day. He never spoke again. His fa­ther says he un­der­stands ev­ery­thing, but can’t find a way to com­mu­ni­cate ver­bally.

But Hugh Fin­lay can speak and shout and bang his fists on the of­fice doors of gov­ern­ment and health­care of­fi­cials — and he did all that for 15 years to make sure that Scott would have a sup­port­ive home for that day that he and Rose­mary couldn’t take care of him any­more.

All par­ents worry about their chil­dren’s fu­ture, but for care­givers of adult chil­dren with needs, the thought of what might hap­pen to them af­ter they’re gone can be a ter­ri­fy­ing thing.

When Hugh Fin­lay started his drive to get a home built for Scott and oth­ers in the area with ac­quired brain in­juries, he was told there were 2,400 par­ents in On­tario in the same predica­ment they were in.

“We had over 100 ap­pli­ca­tions for this place, peo­ple from Toronto would phone me and say, ‘If we moved to Na­pa­nee, do you think we’d get in?’ Thank God I wasn’t the per­son choos­ing the peo­ple,” he says.

Through the ac­tiv­i­ties in his new home, Scott Fin­lay has al­ready been on nu­mer­ous trips, in­clud­ing to Kingston, the Thou­sand Is­lands and to watch drag rac­ing, a real treat given his love of cars.

His par­ents, who are in their mid-80s, have been tak­ing things a lit­tle slower.

“We haven’t gone any­place yet,” Hugh Fin­lay says. “We keep think­ing about it, but we’re home­bod­ies. It’s aw­fully hard af­ter you stay home for that many years not do­ing too much, it takes a while to fig­ure out what to do.”

But there is one thing he is clear on do­ing and that is thank­ing “all the peo­ple in Canada that re­ally helped to make this Na­pa­nee-ac­quired brain-in­jury home a suc­cess.”

At the top of his list are two Toronto Star jour­nal­ists, the late Randy Stark­man and Randy Ris­ling, whose con­tri­bu­tions were re­mem­bered at the cel­e­bra­tory open­ing on Wednes­day. Stark­man, the Star’s award­win­ning am­a­teur sports re­porter, wrote a fea­ture head­lined “The Skier: When love runs out of time” in 2011, a year be­fore his sud­den death from pneu­mo­nia.

That story and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing video by Ris­ling gal­va­nized com­mu­nity sup­port and started the flood of do­na­tions that helped jump-start gov­ern­ment ac­tion on build­ing the Na­pa­nee home.

“I bet he’s look­ing down from heaven smil­ing from ear to ear,” Hugh Fin­lay says of Stark­man, whose com­mem­o­ra­tive plaque adorns a bench in the home’s court­yard.

Scott Fin­lay is smil­ing a lot these days.

He likes the staff, the ac­tiv­i­ties, the food and sit­ting in his golden room, look­ing out the win­dow at the park­ing lot where his par­ents pull in to visit.


Scott Fin­lay at the grand open­ing of Na­pa­nee’s Fin­lay House for peo­ple with ac­quired brain in­juries.

Toronto Star, March 12, 2011


Scott Fin­lay’s room at the grand open­ing of the Fin­lay Home. The Farm­house Com­mu­nity Quil­ters vol­un­teered to make this quilt of rac­ing bibs Scott wore. The promis­ing skier, above, was par­a­lyzed in a crash at the 1978 Cana­dian cham­pi­onships in Lake Louise. The home hon­ours the late Randy Stark­man, a Toronto Star jour­nal­ist whose con­tri­bu­tions helped jump-start gov­ern­ment ac­tion on build­ing the Na­pa­nee home.

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