Struggling for Bliss: Greece man’s long road to recovery

Published: November 22, 2009  |  Source: democratandchronicle.com
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Mike BlissMike Bliss’ story can be told in four words:

Believe. Persevere. Thank you.

On March 22, 2008, Bliss, a 21-year-old junior accounting major at the State University of New York at Buffalo, left a Main Street bar near the campus. In an unprovoked attack, he was beaten and stomped by two other SUNY students. The assault left him with two dislocated vertebrae and a bruised spinal cord — words that understate the severity of the injury. He was paralyzed from the neck down.

Twenty months later, Bliss has made huge strides on his road to recovery. Just as impressive as his physical comeback, however, is his spiritual and emotional recovery.

“He is grateful for everything people do,” said the Rev. Thomas Wheeland, pastor of Holy Cross Catholic Church in the Charlotte neighborhood, where the Bliss family worships.

“He is always saying, ‘Thank you,'” Wheeland said. “Grace builds on grace. The family knows the negative side, but they do not let it control their lives.”

After the assault, Bliss spent two weeks at the Erie County Medical Center, where he had surgery to fuse the two dislocated vertebrae. He was then moved to Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, where he began his rehabilitation — three hours a day, five days a week, for several weeks.

In late spring, he left Strong and moved back to the family home in Greece.

“I couldn’t do a thing,” Bliss said. “I wasn’t ready, physically, mentally or emotionally.” He slept in a bed in the dining room; his grandmothers — Joy Bliss and Nancy Murray — alternated nights with him, so his parents, Mike Sr. and Cheryl, could get some sleep.

“We would help him stretch,” said Joy Bliss, and “get him what he needed.”

“He was in a lot of pain,” Murray said. “We had to turn him, so he wouldn’t get sores, and we had to get in the bed with him so he couldn’t turn back.”

Though it was a challenge, Murray said that when she looks at how far he’s come, “I can’t believe how blessed we’ve been.”

Mike Bliss cannot walk, although he can take a few steps with the help of a set of parallel bars that now sits in the family’s living room. He can lift himself from a sitting position and then grip the bars.

He has regained considerable upper-body strength. He lifts weights; he can feed himself, write a bit and play video games. He can lift himself from his wheelchair to a bed or into and out of a car. He is recovering the strength he had as an athlete. He is a 2005 Greece Arcadia graduate and played left wing for the Greece Lightning, a combined Arcadia and Greece Olympia high schools team.

He has feeling in all his extremities, including his lower legs and feet. But he is waiting for his brain to restart the neurological impulses that will give him control.

“Hopefully, science will come through,” he said.

Even when he’s discouraged by what he sees as a lack of progress, Bliss said, “I do feel very fortunate. When I was at Project Walk (a spinal injury rehab facility near San Diego, Calif.) I saw people younger than me with more serious injuries and no one to really help them. I can’t complain.”

The attack

Bliss had some beers with friends that Friday night. They had been at the Pearl Street Grill and Brewery and also at The Steer, a bar and burger place, both near the SUNY campus in Buffalo. It was 3 a.m. on Saturday, March 22, when they left to go back to the dorms. Bliss made his way to Main Street, where “somebody said something to me,” he said. “I don’t remember what he said. I probably said something back. Then someone hit me from behind and I fell.” The pair punched and kicked Bliss. A passerby saw the attack and called 911. The police were there within a couple of minutes, as were Bliss’ friends. The two assailants were arrested, and both later pleaded guilty to assault charges and were sentenced, one to eight years in prison, the other to one year.

Bliss remembers nothing of the actual attack, but he does remember he could not move. When the police arrived, he said, one officer said, “Get up, you’re just drunk.”

“But I couldn’t move my legs,” he said.

Within a couple of hours, Mike Bliss Sr. was at the Erie County Medical Facility. He was soon joined by other family members, including Cheryl and the grandparents. Bliss was placed on a respirator. Over the next several days, especially as the severity of Bliss’ injuries became apparent, a steady stream of visitors, from Rochester and Buffalo, filled the waiting room. Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown was among the visitors.

Several weeks later, Bliss appeared on a Buffalo wake-up TV show with Kevin Everett, the Buffalo Bills tight end who had a career-ending spinal cord injury in 2007, and who has since made a significant recovery and started a foundation to help others with similar injuries. After the program Bliss spoke to Everett: “He wished me well. He told me to work hard and have faith in God.” Everett also made Mike Bliss the first recipient of his foundation.

Persevere

Mike Bliss Sr. worked 24 years at General Motors’ Delco Products Division in Rochester. He lost his job a couple of years ago and was planning to return to school. Then Mike was attacked. “It worked out,” the senior Bliss said. “I’m able to be home for him.”

It is hard to overstate how much the attack has changed life at the Bliss home. Mike has moved into the living room, where he sleeps on mats on top of a wood-framed platform that he uses for stretching — a platform built by his younger brother Matthew, 20.

In the first weeks after Mike’s return, Cheryl Bliss said, it was hard for the youngest of the three Bliss children, Kelsey, now 10, to understand why her big brother was the focus of so much attention. Cheryl, a nurse, works long weekend shifts for Visiting Nurse Service, so that she, too, is available for her husband and children during the week.

They have adapted to the new reality: That Mike needs their help, but also that his injury has drawn them closer as a family and has shown them the kindness of family, friends and strangers — who continue to offer time, support and fundraising to pay the bills and fill in the holes in the cost of Mike’s continuing care.

On his left forearm, Mike has a tattoo that reads simply: “Persevere.” And so he does.

Every morning, Mike Sr. starts his day by stretching his son’s muscles. With Mike on his back, his father kneels between his legs and pushes his thighs apart. “He is very tight,” the dad said. Without an hour of serious stretching, “he’d be curled up in a ball.”

His dad works muscles that can’t work themselves. “It’s a frustrating injury,” the son said. “You can work really hard and not be rewarded the way you’d like. It plays mind games with you.”

Several afternoons each week, Mike works out at the Northwest branch YMCA on Long Pond Road. As other members work the treadmills, stationary bikes and elliptical trainers, their eyes on the soap operas and cable news programs showing on overhead TVs, Bliss lifts himself from the chair to the leg press machine. He lifts 35 pounds, “but we’re really more concerned with the range of movement than with the weight,” said Mike Hargreaves, his trainer and friend. “He’s got good movement of his hips.”

They move through the room of machines, from leg extension to chest press, to lateral pull downs. “I still lift only school kid weight,” Bliss said, “But it’s a lot better than it was.”

It’s hard work, Hargreaves said, but it will pay off. “One hundred percent of our energy is on this. If he’s home, he’s thinking about walking. If he’s working out, he’s thinking about walking.”

In another corner of the room, Mike Sr. works out alone. “The two of them are good for each other,” the father said of the Mikes. “And this gives (Mike Jr.) a break from me. I’m with him all the time.”

But “persevere” refers to more than the workouts; it also refers to the work of preserving the Mike who’s locked inside those nonresponsive muscles.

He’s studying French using a Rosetta Stone language program. He expects to resume his studies, taking some online courses at first. But he says he probably will not go back to accounting. He thinks he might like to help others recover from injuries; the work he pursues, obviously, will depend on what his body lets him do.

“That kid has done all of this with a smile on his face,” said Lawrence Bliss, Mike’s grandfather. Young Mike, Lawrence said, has always been fun and funny. A few weeks ago when the grandfather was about to have minor surgery, he got a call from his grandson. “He said ‘this is the doctor’s office and I just want to remind you that you need to take four suppositories before you come in.’ He had me for a minute. He had me.”

Believe

A few days after the attack, Haley Bissonnette spotted a bracelet in a mall shop. “It was a cheap little thing, $1.99, but it said ‘Believe,'” she said. It was a string of little baubles, but Bissonnette bought every one they had. She had worked with Mike at Dirosato’s Pizza and Pasta in Gates, a restaurant owned by Bliss’ cousin, Lou DiMarco. Bissonnette delivered a bracelet to Bliss at ECMC on the day the doctors removed the respirator. Hers is tainted green and leaves marks on her wrist, “but I vowed that day I would not take it off until he walks,” she said. “It feels so good to start something like this. The word has a brand new meaning — not a word at all, but an alert.”

“Believe” has become the Bliss family mantra. They distribute Lance Armstrong Livestrong-style light-blue rubber bracelets with the word “Believe” on one side, and “Mike Bliss” on the other. There are signs and woodcuttings and posters in their home, on the porch, in the grandparents’ homes, even on a cap Mike Sr. wears — all proclaiming that simple message.

Mike’s best friend, Arcadia classmate and college roommate, Josh Mann, sports a “Believe” tattoo.

“I’ve learned from him never to give up,” Mann said. “It’s an inspiration to be around him.”

Another close friend, Steve LeDuc of Greece, grew up playing hockey with Bliss. With Mann and others, he gets him out of the house for an occasional outing to Paddy’s Irish Pub on Latta Road. “What I have learned from him,” LeDuc said, “is that you can’t take life for granted. When something happens, all that matters is what you do with it.”

Thank you

“It blew me away,” Cheryl Bliss said of the kindness Mike and the family have received.

It began right away, when Nicki Tachin, of Hilton and her sister, Kim Territo of Greece, decided to organize a fundraising event at Holy Cross Church for the family in May of 2008. Tachin knew the Blisses from church; Territo knew them from youth sports. Neither knew the family well.

“I just knew we wanted to help,” Tachin said. Raffles, a silent auction and a pasta dinner netted $20,000 for the family. It was the first of many, many events. Cheryl hesitates to try to list them all for fear of leaving someone out.

But without that help, they could not have paid for many medical expenses (like the trip to San Diego’s Project Walk). The Blisses hope to take another trip to Project Walk early in 2010.

Tachin and Territo didn’t go away after the fundraising event. They became family, inviting the Blisses to birthday parties, July Fourth fireworks, and bringing lunch often to the Bliss home.

Mike Jr. refers to Tachin and Territo as his “fake aunts” — or “faunts” for short. “They are family,” he said, “I love them.”

When pressed a bit, Bliss will not sugarcoat his injuries. “I feel like a prisoner in my own body,” he said. “I feel like I’m taking a toll on my family members. You can see I’ve pretty much taken over the house.”

But he carries no anger toward his attackers. He looks forward, never backward. He remains hopeful.

“I’ve rekindled relationships with people I haven’t seen in a long time. I’ve met so many great people. I really have been fortunate.”

And that spirit has awakened a sense of gratitude in others, even those who never knew the Bliss family.

Megan Ball of Gates earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at SUNY Buffalo. She worked as a fundraiser at the school until she lost her job in January of 2008. She stayed in Buffalo looking for work until March, when she moved back to Gates.

She watched the news that Saturday night and saw the story of the attack on Mike Bliss. “I was literally nauseous,” she said. Before she saw the news, Ball said, “I was thinking, I’ve done everything right but things are just not going my way. I was feeling sorry for myself … and then there was Mike.”

She looked up Mike Bliss on Facebook, where she found Matthew Bliss’ page with more information about the attack. She also learned that there would be a meeting about a fundraising event at Dirosato’s Pizza. “I didn’t know if I should go, but I did.”

At Dirosato’s she met Bliss family members who encouraged her to visit Mike at Strong. “I went to Strong and they were trying to show his mom and dad how to get him in and out of a car. It was 45-minute process.” She realized that the family was already dealing with setbacks far more serious than any she had experienced. “They are an amazing family and knowing Mike has changed the way I see everything.”

Ball helped with the fundraising event and says the family’s gratitude “stops you in your tracks.”

Those who have come to know Mike Bliss since the assault consistently say his outlook has done far more for them than they could ever do for him. “I have to say that working with Mike has motivated me to be a better person,” trainer Mike Hargreaves said. “I see how hard he tries, how determined he is, and I am amazed.”

“Faith has molded them from day to day,” Father Wheeland said of the Bliss family. “We see death and resurrection in our own lives all the time. As we go through struggles, there is always resurrection, if we see it.”

The Blisses, he says, see it.

Mark Hare
Senior editor
Democrat and Chronicle

Additional Facts
The Michael W. Bliss Trust

The trust was established to cover the cost of supplemental needs, services not covered by insurance or other resources, including rehabilitation at the San Diego Project Walk facility.
Checks should be made payable to the Michael W. Bliss Trust and mailed to 322 Cameron Hill, Rochester, NY 14612.