Since January 17, Tonja Bigelow-Brown has died three times. She died first on an operating table at Medical City Dallas, where surgeons cut her open to find the source of an E.coli bacterial infection that caused her fallopian tubes to rupture. She was revived that night, waking briefly out of anesthesia to see doctors peering down into her bleeding gut.
Her heart stopped two more times after that and when she came to days later in ICU, she was told bluntly that she had two weeks to live. A smiling intern shoved a bill into her hand for $37,000 and asked if she could write a check right then, seeing as how she was about to die and all. Then the chaplain appeared.
Bigelow-Brown, 40, was for six years the House Manager at the Dallas Theater Center. She is still alive, telling her story in a surprisingly offhand manner over Frappuccinos at a North Dallas Starbucks. She has a big laugh, which she tries to hold back because laughing too hard exacerbates stomach and back pains that haven't let up since she first fell ill in January.
Seven months since that initial and still-mysterious bout of infection, she's not fully recovered. E.coli acts like an acid, eating through internal organs, she tells me. She's been back in the hospital for complications, including tumors that have appeared on her ovaries and intestines. More than once, doctors have told her there's nothing more they can do and that she should "get her affairs in order."
The cost of hospital stays and the expensive medications she now has to take has topped $200,000, far outstripping Bigelow-Brown's health insurance caps. Tonight friends are hosting a fundraiser for her at the Dallas "Castle" of Medieval Times, where her husband Brutus MacGreggor once worked as the "King." (He's now the door manager at Ghostbar, with two other jobs on the side.) There'll be a silent auction, a raffle and a poker tourney, with sale items including artwork, autographed footballs from the Cowboys and theater-related memorabilia. Family friend Amber Campisi, of pizza and Playboy fame, will be there to sign photos. There'll be food, drink and live entertainment from the Dallas theater community, including performances by "Dallas Divas" Liz Mikel and Denise Lee. Admission is $5 and is open to the public.
Theatergoers remember Bigelow-Brown as the boisterous, friendly force who ruled the "front of house" at DTC from 2001 to 2007, when the company was still in its original home at Kalita Humphreys Theater on Turtle Creek. Working 80-hour weeks during the theater season, she welcomed patrons into the lobby for every show, making sure the box office and ushers were organized and dealing with ticket mix-ups.
She was the frontline ambassador for the place and grew used to calming older customers who'd burst into the lobby during shows, upset with profanity or sexual scenes in DTC's productions. "The worst was Topdog/Underdog. I got screamed at a lot during that show. People would throw their programs in my face," she recalls.
She once ran down the aisle and tackled a female stalker who was trying to get onstage to do who knows what to actress Julie White during the run of Bad Dates. When she was let go in the changeover to the new regime under artistic director Kevin Moriarty, she received more than 100 letters, she says, from patrons who said they missed her and wished she were working at the new Wyly Theatre. (If only -- house management in that shiny steel box currently is a disaster.)
After a short stint in the media department at Cathedral of Hope, Bigelow-Brown got sick. She can't work right now. Can't do much of anything but try to cope with "pills and bills," she says. There've been a lot of changes in her life, mostly for the worst, as a result of her ordeal, but she says she also had something dramatic happen during those three near-death experiences. A lifelong atheist, Tonja Bigelow-Brown returned from "the other side" a devout believer in ... something. "I don't want to talk about it too much because I'll sound like a kook," she says.
"But when I died, it felt like taking off a wet wool jacket. All the pain went away. I went toward these balls of light, these orbs of energy. They talked to me. I said, `Are you God?' and they said, `That's a human word. We are love.' And I felt complete peace and love all around me. So I'm not afraid to die anymore. It's just that I'm not ready to yet."
All donations and proceeds from the event at Medieval Times will go toward Tonja Bigelow-Brown's medical bills. Donations are also accepted by check to The Art of Living Foundation, C/O Bank of America (any branch), routing no. 111000025, account no. 488026941231.