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5199 E. Pacific Coast Hwy. #608
Post Office Box 15679
Long Beach California, 90815-0679
Phone: (562) 597-8000
Fax: (562) 597-9410
Feature Stories

Community Rallies for Josh Bridgewater

From Issue: Volume XXII - Number 14

By Kirt Ramirez

Josh Bridgewater was born with a hole in his back and with his spine sticking out.

Doctors immediately operated on the spinal birth defect – spina bifida – to put the backbone back in. However Bridgewater would need surgeries his whole life to manage the rare condition and its related ailments.

The Portland native grew up with a rubber urinary bag on his leg until he was 17 and slept with a diaper on. Kids made fun of him and called him names.

At 17 he received his first artificial bladder and has had five so far. As a youngster he felt like an outcast and was angry and depressed. He rebelled.

That was then.

Now age 40, married and living in Long Beach – Bridgewater loves life, is happy-go-lucky and optimistic even though he has the most severe form of spina bifida – meningomyelocele.

“I still can’t spell that,” he said laughing. “I don’t know why it just couldn’t be called ‘spinal cord jacked up.’ ”

While many others with spina bifida are in wheelchairs or use crutches to get around, Bridgewater can use his legs, which he is thankful for.

Though Bridgewater still wears diapers and has accidents from time to time, he finds humor. His forearm displays a tattoo of a kid fighter in a diaper.

“If you own your condition, then there’s nothing left for people to make fun of,” Bridgewater jested.

As a baby in Oregon, doctors told his mom he would not walk. When Bridgewater was older, he overheard doctors tell his mother and stepfather he wouldn’t be independent or have normal relationships with women later. However, Bridgewater skates and surfs at times, sells vintage clothing online when he can and is happily married to his wife of four years.

“You tell me no, I’m going to show you wrong,” he asserted. “I like proving people wrong when they doubt me.”

Periodically surgeons must remove scar tissue from his spine. But after a procedure in 2010, he contracted a staph infection afterwards that went to his brain. He almost died. This was about two months before moving to Long Beach and three months before getting married.

He spent 29 days on his back in a hospital in Oregon with antibiotic treatments cleaning out his system before transitioning to California. “I spent the first six months of my marriage in bed with a pee bag,” he disclosed. “My bladder eroded.”

All in all, Bridgewater has had 26 surgeries related to his spina bifida – with more to come.

He worked as a barber for 10 years but had to give it up after his spinal cord had been cut open so many times that it was difficult to stand all day, he said, adding he endured five leg-straightening surgeries.

Though he’d rather earn his wages then receive assistance, the reality is he is unemployable, he said, as his incontinence can happen at any moment and there are days when he is bed-ridden.
The State of California provides him disability income.

Bridgewater is covered by Medicare and Medi-Cal insurance but they don’t cover everything. He has to pay copayments and whatever else is not covered for his procedures, medicines and hospital visits.
Altogether he is $70,000 in medical debt – and growing.

His wife – who made $65,000 a year – lost her graphic design job after they got married, when her whole department was laid off. Today she works in retail but makes a lot less money, he said.

With electricity, gas and telephone services turned off, or on the brink of being shut off in recent times, Bridgewater turned to his large network of friends and contacts for help. He arranged for a fundraiser and it took place at Alex’s Bar at 2913 E. Anaheim St. on Sunday July 6.

Well over 50 businesses donated items or services to be raffled off during the event including Fender, Pollys Gourmet Coffee, Schooner at Sunset, Kafe Neo, Gallagher’s Pub & Grill, Vans off the Wall and various skate, record, art and tattoo shops.

Several bands played for free at the packed venue: The Originalites, Hardship Anchors, The Long Beach Sound Society, Drop Dead Beats and Blind John Pope.

A $5 cover charge to enter the bar went to Bridgewater’s cause of reducing his debt.

“I’m glad I could spend time helping out my good friend Josh pay his medical bills,” said Originalites saxophonist Mike Belk. “It was great to play at Alex’s and I hope Josh gets close to the amount he needs.”
Fernando Mendoza said about the event: “I’m happy with how it turned out, with all the sponsors he was able to get. It shows a good, positive side to humanity.”

Mendoza said of Bridgewater: “His disability doesn’t weigh him down in life. If there’s a definition in the dictionary of a guy with a positive attitude, there’ll be a picture of Josh.”

Justin Deeds met Bridgewater when he first moved to Long Beach and they became fast friends. “Josh is one of those people who is a magnet to people. A gift to gab. He is a one of a kind person.”

People wore “P.M.A.” T-shirts (positive mental attitude all the way) with Frankenstein in the center wearing sunglasses and a spina bifida ribbon. “They call him Frankenstein because he had 26 surgeries,” Deeds said. “Unfortunately he’s going to have surgeries his whole life. That’s how spina bifida is.”

Bridgewater’s wife, Shawna, was asked what she admires most about her husband: “His willpower. He keeps me afloat all the time. I never know if he is suffering or in pain. He is so loving and he has such a big heart. He stops for animals in the street to help them,” she said. “I want to thank the whole community for giving so much … We are so appreciative for it.”

Alex’s Bar owner Alex Hernandez said: “Josh is a good dude. The guy still gets out there and skateboards with spina bifida. I’m overweight with bad knees and I don’t skateboard anymore. It’s an inspirational story.”

The public can visit if interested in donating to Bridgewater.

Long Beach Health Officer Mitchell Kushner said by phone it is unknown how many people in Long Beach have this birth defect, as it is not a reportable condition. However, quoting state health statistics, Kushner said, “In California overall it’s a rare condition. There is a documented one case in 2,860 births.”

The Spina Bifida Association – which is the same age as Bridgewater, 40 – says online that spina bifida is the most common permanently disabling birth defect in the United States and that spina bifida literally means “split spine.”

“Spina bifida happens when a baby is in the womb and the spinal column does not close all of the way. Every day, about eight babies born in the United States have Spina Bifida or a similar birth defect of the brain and spine,” the association says.

What causes spina bifida is unknown but scientists believe that genetic and environmental factors act together to cause the condition, the association reports, adding that taking the B-vitamin folic acid during pregnancy can help prevent it.