EDITOR'S NOTE: Connect-Bridgeport is reposting this story on former Bridgeport coach Bruce Carey on the eve of the Indians' football game with Robert C. Byrd and the return of Bruce Carey to Wayne Jamison Field.
Pam Carey knew something was wrong. And she knew immediately something was seriously wrong.
On the other end of the phone was her husband, Bridgeport High School Football Coach Bruce Carey and his request was far from what was expected early that morning. He wanted her home right away. And he needed her there because he couldn’t walk. Bruce Carey, a man who despised the idea of going to the hospital, was telling his wife she needed to come home and take him to the emergency room.
“Bruce is the last person in the world who wants to ask for any type of help. To hear him say he needed to go to the emergency room was terribly worrisome,” she said. “I knew it was serious.”
As it turned out, it was. Bruce Carey could not ignore what had just taken place. Waking up a little late on a snow day from his teaching job, he started putting his clothes on. Without even knowing what had happened, he fell to the floor. He managed to get up and try it once more and, again, he went down. With his legs having little if any feeling and with excruciating pain in his back, he made the phone call.
Before Pam Carey could arrive, Bruce managed to locate a cane his wife had used after breaking her leg and attempted to get around. The problem was that he had completely lost the feeling in his legs and was, for all intents, paralyzed. While he knew his situation was serious, he didn’t know how serious. Even at this point, the long-time BHS football coach thought it was related to ongoing back problems he had endured for several years.
“I had actually been battling sciatic problems for years and thought it had really flared up. I was in so much pain the night before that I should have gone to the hospital. Had I gone to the hospital instead of being hard headed and thinking it would pass, I may not be as paralyzed as I am right now,” Bruce said. “I was certain sleeping would make it go away because it was the same pain as my sciatic problems in the past, just a lot more intense.”
Once his wife arrived home, he decided an ambulance wouldn’t be necessary. Instead, he asked Pam to help him to the car. From there, he started realizing the problem may be worse than just a sciatic problem. He started to wonder, for the first time, where his situation was heading. Even at that point, though, he figured it was a temporary situation at worst.
“We got to the porch and I fell down,” Bruce said. “I just told her to call the emergency car. Once they got there, they thought I could walk because I looked fine. Basically they dragged me and as they were doing that, I figured I would move my feet and I couldn’t. When I explained what was going on, they called a neurosurgeon at the hospital and he knew what was wrong. I didn’t.”
GETTING THE NEWS
Upon arriving at United Hospital Center, Bruce Carey would have what would be the first of multiple encounters with Dr. Vince Miele. Miele
is a neurosurgeon who had been at UHC for about four years after working at the Cleveland Clinic and just this month took over at West Virginia University as the director of Neurosurgical Spine Surgery. In his field of work, he is far from a novice.
After working with Bruce and scanning his back, Miele came to a diagnosis. Bruce had Spinal Arteriovenous Malformation, which is also known as an Artery Vein Malfunction (AVM) and is found in less than 1 percent of the population. A spinal AVM, said Miele, is even rarer.
“They’re so rare in fact, that there is no consensus as to how common they really are. Definitely less than one in 100,000,” Miele said.
So what exactly was the AVM in layman’s terms? Miele described it is an abnormal connection between arteries and veins which Bruce was likely born with. Miele also described Bruce’s situation as a “time bomb.” Unfortunately for Bruce Carey, the bomb had exploded.
“The description of AVMs as ticking time bombs is, unfortunately, really accurate,” the doctor said. “When they rupture, the effect is like an explosion in the sensitive tissue of the nervous system. Everything around the rupture can be destroyed.”
Miele grasped the seriousness of what was going on. Carey, who was already itching to take a pill and go home, did not.
“Even after he was telling me I had to have surgery, I still thought it was minor. Hell, I was talking to him about talking with my wife about when to have surgery and he told me I had to have the surgery now,” Bruce said. “Then he tells me, ‘I think there’s a chance you’ll be able to walk again.’ I was thinking what on earth does he mean I’ll be able to walk again? I didn’t feel that bad; not walking again never crossed my mind. I found out later that a chance to walk again was the best case scenario.”
As Miele explained, it was also an unlikely one. It was not beyond the realm of possibility that Carey could walk again, but Miele knew the odds pointed against it. Working against Bruce Carey was the fact that his tumor had basically burst and bled out. Working for Bruce Carey was the fact that Dr. Miele was one of the few doctors east of the Mississippi who had dealt with Bruce’s condition.
“Neurosurgeons are one of the smallest subspecialties. Those with fellowship training specifically in spine are even less common, I think there are only three in West Virginia,” said Miele. “Of this fellowship trained group, there are only a handful in the United States that had specific training in spinal vascular malformations. It definitely helps to have someone familiar with the problem close by.”
It helped here in more ways than one might imagine. Bruce Carey’s condition was already past the point of whether he would walk again. Miele said it was to the point that his life was on the line.
“He could have easily died or lost complete use of his arms and legs,” said Miele. “Once the AVM ruptures, without immediate decompression of the area, that is likely what would have happened.”
While Bruce Carey was trying to comprehend what was taking place, Pam Carey was shaken to the core waiting for some outcome. She thought perhaps there was a tumor in his back and was already thinking the worst.
“You hate to think bad things, but I was wondering if he had cancer and everything else,” she said. “It wasn’t until after the surgery that I really knew what was going on and I was so happy he was going to make it, but so scared about what the future held.”
THE SLOW ROAD TO RECOVERY
Bruce Carey had surgery about the time of the Steelers Super Bowl win against the Arizona Cardinals. He remembers that specifically. He
also remembers that not being able to enjoy that was amongst the least of his worries.
The first three days after surgery were a nightmare. The reality of his situation, he added, didn’t sink in. Even as a week passed, the fact that he may never walk again did not sink in. He told himself, in a month, everything would be fine.
For Bruce Carey, the road to recovery was a slow one. In fact, nearly four years later, he’s still on it. The path along the road has been filled with obstacles that, at times has left him frustrated. There have been moments, his wife said, where his situation has left him depressed. Still, Bruce Carey rarely complained too much, if at all. Part of it was the very nature of how he was raised. For those who know any of the Carey boys, they were taught to be the man of the house and not be dependent on others. Very quickly, Bruce Carey was now dependent on others for almost everything. And according to his wife, it was problematic from an emotional standpoint.
“He put on a brave face in public because it’s in his nature not to have anyone worry about him. It’s a guy thing; a man thing. I can tell you, it’s part of his upbringing because he’s the provider. He did it all, and now he couldn’t do anything,” Pam said. “I know it put him in a deep depression and most couldn’t see it, but I could. I didn’t know what to do so I just prayed. My faith kept me going and assured me Bruce would see something to keep him going.”
Ironically, Bruce Carey found a reason to battle during some of the worst days of his life. With surgery behind him, he was off to HealthSouth, a rehabilitation center in Morgantown. It was there that he both struggled with his new situation and decided that he, unlike many there, had a chance.
“Seeing so many older folks there with strokes and you can’t do anything more than they can do. You were helpless,” Bruce said. “A woman washed you, helped you use the bathroom. It was humbling and embarrassing. Whenever I get miserable, I think back to that and think I’m so far removed from where I was.”
Getting that thought process to register that he was indeed making progress was not easy to come by. Even today, he still has problems with his limitations. And it’s the most unlikely of things that brings on despair. Watching his wife shovel sidewalks and a close friend cut his grass “makes him sick," he said. Carey admits he was taught to be self-sufficient and it eats at his core.
“That stuff still hurts to this day, but I guess that’s part of my upbringing. I just don’t want people to have to do things for me,” Carey said.
There was one thing Carey knew he still wanted to do. And that was what he was known for and what he did best – coach football. Carey returned to the football field to coach a Bridgeport team loaded with talent and potential. It was a team many felt had a chance to win the Class AAA title, which they nearly did; making it to the semifinals and losing a heartbreaker to the eventual state champion. From the hot months of August into November, Carey, still unable to walk, not only coached from a golf cart during practices and a walking device during games, but he continued to teach. While the coaching was therapeutic, Carey admits it was beyond difficult.
“That year was miserable both physically and mentally,” Carey said. “ … As miserable as I was, six months after I stepped down I really started missing football.”
After Carey's resignation from football, he spent most of his time alone. He was at home or he was teaching in school. Public appearances were rare. Yet, when he was in school, he was okay because it was “what got me up for the day.” On top of that, while he enjoys teaching, he also enjoys the back and forth between himself and his colleagues. If Carey thought any of his teaching friends were going to let up on the banter, he was wrong. Fortunately, Carey knew his friends weren’t going to treat him any different.
“You got guys like (Ron) Hawk (Romeo) and (Principal) Mark (DeFazio) and so many others who were great to me and still are and I knew would do anything I needed. At the same time, those guys didn’t let up on me. We all picked up busting on each other like nothing was wrong. Of course, Mark thought then, and thinks now, the he can whip me, but I know he can’t do it even in my current condition,” said Carey with a laugh.
As principal, DeFazio was willing to do anything for a person he not only considers a great educator and coach, but also a good friend. He urged Bruce to take a leave of absence instead of resigning his coaching position, but Bruce wouldn’t have any of that. He also said if Bruce needed time off from school, he should take as much as needed. It almost never happened.
“What he has personally gone through, most people would have tried to get disability, retired or found a way out,” said DeFazio. “He forced himself back to work with very few concessions requested because, quite frankly, he didn’t want any … He had the respect of our faculty long before this ever happened and they have even more so now. As for the kids, he has a way of being tough with them, but the kids have always loved and respected him as a teacher. If you can’t admire a guy like Bruce Carey, there’s no one out there to admire.”
FROM SIDELINED BACK TO THE SIDELINES
Progress for Bruce Carey was, and continues to be, painfully slow. Watching his wife do so much has been the hardest part.
“If someone can actually be too much of a help, my wife has been that, and I mean that in a good way. I feel sorry for her because she has to do too much,” Carey said. “She’s took over my chores and she’s still doing hers.”
Yet without that help, Carey admits he wouldn’t be where he’s at today. He’s progressed from wheelchair to combined walker/rolling device, to two canes and - most of the time now - just one cane. At home, Bruce Carey even walks as much as possible without a cane.
“I still hope some of my feeling will come back, but I’m like a two-year-old who's walking and loses his balance and falls,” Carey said. “I might break something if I fall because I’ve got a long way to fall. My stabilizing muscles just aren’t there to balance me when I go long distances without my cane.”
And Carey knows there’s only so much better that he’ll get. He doesn’t believe he’ll ever be 100 percent, but wants to get to a point where he can maneuver for the most part without a cane. At the same time, he’s heard stories of others in his condition that the nerve endings heal suddenly after four or five years. The doctors tell him the odds of that aren’t good. Medically, most of what returns comes after six months. Carey’s optimism comes from the fact that he’s made strides well past the six-month mark. What that means is Carey has beaten the odds. Even Dr. Miele is amazed with Carey’s current status.
“The usual course after such an event would be permanent wheelchair at best,” Miele said. “The fact that he is up and walking is a testament to getting to the hospital fast to minimize damage; and his strong will. He is a special person.”
Soon, hopefully, the students and football players at Robert C. Byrd will find that out as well. The tug of coaching continued to pull at him and when he was contacted by administrators at the Clarksburg school, he was interested.
Carey didn’t give an immediate affirmative to apply, despite the fact he wanted back into the game. He had to see if he was ready physically, and met with medical staff to help in making that determination. Carey also didn’t make his decision without talking to DeFazio to see what he thought.
“I told him to do what’s best for him,” DeFazio said. “If coaching is going to make him feel good, by all means do it. Honestly, it doesn’t matter if it’s our biggest rival or not. What matters is Bruce has got a chance to do what he loves to do again.”
It was a chance, his wife said, that Bruce Carey never thought would come. During those dark days at HealthSouth, and during that first year where he attempted to coach, Pam Carey felt as much pain emotionally as her husband was feeling physically.
“He said during the early therapy that he’d never coach again. I told him he didn’t know that. Then, we he decided to coach one more year at Bridgeport, it was so hard to see him come home,” she said. “He was so worn out, just completely exhausted. He had to give it up and he thought he’d never do it again. I think he’s earned the right to do it again.”
Few, if any, would argue that point. Carey, however, knows the 2012 football season at Robert C. Byrd, as well as his new gig as an educator at the school on One Eagle Way, will still be trying. Unlike before, he has a little bit of wiggle room if things become too taxing.
“I can retire (from teaching) after this year if I think it’s too much and if it’s way too much, no one will have to tell me to leave, I’ll leave,” said Carey. “I know if I retired and didn’t coach, there’s nothing for me to do. I used to golf and do other things and right now I can’t do that. I just need to buckle down and push myself. Once I put my mind to it, I should be fine. The difficult part is already behind me. I’m ready to go again.”
Editor's Note II: A special thanks to Bruce and Pam Carey for sharing their story with us, and for Dr. Vince Miele to take time from his busy schedule, as well as Principal Mark DeFazio. Pictured on the front is Coach Carey in his last season on the BHS sidelines. Top photo shows Grandpa Bruce with his 2.5-year-old grandson Isaac. On the bottom, Bruce is shown in his office at Bridgeport High School.