Riverhead burn victim fights to recover

Michael Hubbard, 15, and his mother, Nancy Reyer, work together at Blythedale Children's Hospital in Valhalla, N.Y., as the Riverhead teen continues to recover from a gel-fuel firepot accident in May. Videojournalist: Chris Ware (Dec. 30. 2011)

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They are just three little words.

But for the mother of Michael Hubbard, 15, critically burned and suffering brain damage as the result of an accident seven months ago that led to the removal of fuel-gel candles from stores nationwide, the words are nothing short of a miracle.

"Yeah." "Who." "Ma." Those are the only words Michael has spoken since one of the candles exploded as it was being lit in a backyard in Riverhead, leaving him with burns over 40 percent of his body.

Nancy Reyer, 53, of Riverhead, has spent nearly every day and night at her son's side since the May 28 accident that has confined their lives to a hospital room, a wheelchair and a daily regimen of intensive therapy.

Through it all, Reyer's voice has been Michael's constant, as his shocked and swollen body began shutting down 12 days after the accident. He went into cardiac arrest, depriving his brain of oxygen for 13 minutes.

"I told him, 'If you want to go with the angels, go ahead. Mama will be OK. If you want to fight, I'm right here, we'll fight together,' " Reyer said. "And that's what we have been doing ever since."

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While Michael could hear and see light, it was not clear how much he could comprehend, doctors at Stony Brook University Medical Center had told Reyer.

On Sept. 26, Reyer moved Michael to a traumatic brain injury unit at Blythedale Children's Hospital in Westchester County.

On Dec. 16, coaxed by a therapist, Michael's love of go-carting spurred his first word.

"She said, 'Do you like go-carting?' And he responded 'Yeah!' " Reyer recalled. "It was a beautiful milestone."

Days later, 20 Riverhead High School friends and a guidance counselor brought Christmas gifts to Michael, entering his room in pairs so as not to overwhelm him. "One of the kids came in and said his [own] name softly, and from nowhere, Michael says, 'Who?' " Reyer said. "The kids went nuts -- we all did."

Dec. 23 brought the Christmas present Reyer will never forget. She was standing outside Michael's room, talking with a nurse. "From inside, we heard 'Ma!' and we rushed in," she said. "That's what he always called me -- it was 'Ma, do this, Ma get me that.' "

On Dec. 29, Michael woke Reyer in the middle of the night with another "Ma!"

There have been other signs of improvement. The body bandages and breathing tube are now gone, and Michael can now sit in a wheelchair. His eyes track movement more keenly; he is more alert, his doctors and therapists say.

Scar tissue from skin grafts to his torso, arms, hands and face -- massaged daily -- is healing. Helped by Reyer and therapists, Michael has daily exercises to increase range of motion in his hands, feet and limbs. Gradually, his hands are unclenching so Reyer can now place her hand in his.

Most days, Michael is wheeled to a specially equipped room where he's strapped into a gurney that gently lifts him to a 50-degree angle to simulate standing.

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Doctors are trying Amantadine, a flu drug that's seen some success with brain injury patients, helping to stimulate neurotransmission in the brain. Other exercises encourage him to interact with programs on an iPad.

"He's doing well," said Dr. Kathy Silverman, coordinating pediatrician and director of adolescent medical services at Blythedale. "No one can tell you that this kid is going to be back to normal, but we can say . . . the most remarkable thing in the last few weeks is that he's more consistently able to track people, respond to 'yes-no' questions and have some control over voluntary movement."

A month after the accident, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission announced a nationwide recall of the fuel-gel candles. Michael's Law banning the sale of the fuel gel blamed for a number of similar accidents nationwide took effect in Suffolk County in the fall.

Reyer filed a lawsuit against the candle manufacturer, Napa Home and Garden Inc. The Georgia company filed for bankruptcy protection in July. The lawsuit also names the gel and packaging manufacturers as well as Bed, Bath and Beyond, which sold the candles.

Reyer said what she wants most is for Michael to progress "to where he can actually take care of himself." If that can't happen, Reyer says, "I want him to be able to communicate with the world. We take baby steps; some days feel like [a] snail's pace. But every day's a new day. We've been blessed with miracles, and for now it seems full steam ahead."

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