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“You never know what tomorrow will bring,” Nancy Reyer told an assembly of Riverhead High School students Tuesday afternoon.

Reyer knows the truth of that statement all too well.

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Michael Hubbard in a family photo taken the day before he was severely burned when a citronella “firepot” exploded in his face on May 28, 2011

Her son, Michael Hubbard, was severely burned in a backyard accident on May 28, 2011, when a citronella fire pot exploded, slathering his torso, neck and face with burning “napalm-like” gel. Michael, then 14, sustained third-degree burns over 40 percent of his body.

The stress of the severe burns was too much for Michael’s heart — nine days after the explosion, he went into cardiac arrest, which deprived his brain of blood and oxygen for 13 crucial minutes. The lack of oxygen was costly, severely injuring Michael’s brain. Doctors predicted he would be in a vegetative state for the rest of his life, his mother told the rapt student audience.

She recalled how on that fateful Saturday evening, Michael, his cousin Kris, and friends of theirs were happily helping her set up the family backyard for a party the following day. Suddenly there was an explosion and the gazebo the kids were in was in flames.

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Michael Hubbard’s mom, Nancy Reyer, speaks at the Riverhead High School assembly.

Reyer described the horror of looking over and seeing her only child in flames. The gel stuck to his clothes and skin and kept burning even after Michael did as he’d been taught since early childhood, falling to the ground and rolling. She did everything she could to put out the flames, burning her own hands and arms in the process. Fortunately, a neighbor with a fire extinguisher ran over and helped save Michael’s life.

Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance Corps rushed Michael to Stony Brook University Hospital, where he where he would remain in the pediatric intensive care unit for the next four months.

“So, don’t make fun of anyone over their weight, the way they look or anything,” Reyer told the students. “Because you never know what will happen to them tomorrow, and you’ll never get the chance to say you’re sorry.” Michael was a big boy, Reyer said, and he was often teased about his weight. After the accident, she said, she received a lot of calls from kids telling her they were sorry for teasing her son.

In September 2011, Michael was transferred to Blythedale Children’s Hospital in upstate Valhalla, a short-term care facility for children and teens. It specializes in traumatic brain injury rehabilitation. There, Michael undergoes physical and occupational therapy. He has made progress his doctors at Stony Brook didn’t think possible: He can now smile, laugh and say hello.

Reyer thanked the Riverhead High School student body for its support of her son since that fateful day in May.

“I am so proud of you, Blue Waves, for standing with Michael and doing all you can to help me and my family,” she said through tears. “The support of my Blue Waves and Riverhead has been overwhelming.”

Reyer was at the high school Tuesday on behalf of New Beginnings Community Center, an organization providing outpatient rehab and treatment of traumatic brain injury patients, as well as support and counseling for their caregivers and families. She learned of New Beginnings at Blythedale and began attending support groups there.

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Sound Avenue farm house that will become The Brendan House, a group home for traumatic brain injury patients.

She was joined by four other parents and the founder of New Beginnings, Alison Scerri, to raise awareness about traumatic brain injuries and to talk about a project now underway that will bring Michael home to Riverhead. It’s called the Brendan House, and it’s a two-story farmhouse on Sound Avenue that New Beginnings wants to convert to a group home for TBI patients.

Michael, now 16, has been promised a room in the home, which is now undergoing renovations.

Sandi and Marshall Aykroyd, of Blue Point, parents of the late Brendan, who sustained a traumatic brain injury in an assault in 2009 and then suffered from seizures — a condition that abruptly ended his life on June 16, 2011 — also spoke at the assembly. The home will be named for their son.

After his injury, Brendan spent 71 days in the hospital, his mom told students. After his release, he received therapy and support at New Beginnings and volunteered with construction crews at its Medford outpatient facility. His father described the kind of person Brendan was, how compassionate he was and how he helped others during his short life. He was 25 years old when he passed away in his sleep.

“Ten years ago, Brendan was a lot like you,” his father said to the assembly. “He was in high school, he loved sports, he had a lot of friends.”

“We’re grateful as parents that his memory can live on in the form of this home, The Brendan House,” Sandi Aykroyd said.

“I just found out today that Riverhead is the Waves. Brendan was a surfer, and there are Waves on his headstone,” she said with a sad smile.  “There are no coincidences. We are firm believers that everyone has a purpose, and there is a reason for everything,” she said.

“Brendan is Michael’s angel.”

Donna Kukura, of Shirley, mother of McGann-Mercy student Kaiya, who died Aug. 16, 2011 at age 16, talked to the students about how brain injuries happen: car accidents, sports injuries, falls. She explained how TBI patients are impaired “after the earthquake rips through their brain and their lives.”

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Robert DiMeglio, a TBI survivor, and his mother Kate at the April 6 “hoe-down” fundraiser for New Beginnings Community Center at Martha Clara Vineyards

New Beginnings Community Center vice president Kate DiMeglio, whose son Robert suffered a traumatic brain injury 14 years ago in a car crash on his 21st birthday, spoke about how devastating TBI is to the families of victims and what an important resource New Beginnings is patients and famillies alike. The center in Medford, the only one of its kind on Long Island, provides all therapies under one roof, relieving the patients’ families of the stress of having to move the patients from one facility to another for various therapies.

With therapy, her son has progressed from being in a vegetative state to learning how to speak all over again. Because of his injury, she found New Beginnings and met its founder, Allyson Scerri, whose father suffered a traumatic brain injury in a 2007 motorcycle accident.

Scerri, of East Moriches, learned that there was very little in the way of rehabilitative therapy and support for TBI survivors.

“There needed to be a place where TBI patients could get the care and support they deserved,” she said. “It would be a ‘new beginning’ for TBI survivors and their families.”

Scerri sees another need: for homes where TBI survivors can live and receive rehabilitative therapy. Parent-caregivers of young adults who are TBI survivors, like DiMeglio, worry what will become of their children after they pass on. Parents of TBI survivors who need 24/7 care, like Michael Hubbard, want a long-term care alternative to nursing homes, where little or no rehabilitation is offered.

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Michael Hubbard and his mom in a family photo taken at Blythedale Children’s Hospital last year.

Nancy Reyer said Michael’s miraculous progress with therapy has allowed him to remain at Blythedale longer than anticipated. She stays with him, in his room, living out of a suitcase.

“I live on the couch, next to him. I just want him to know that Mommy is right there, supporting him,” said Reyer.

The Brendan House will allow Reyer to bring Michael home to Riverhead.

“When New Beginnings told me about The Brendan House coming to Riverhead,” Reyer said, “I thought, this is nothing but the work of God.”

About $35,000 of the estimated $200,000 needed for the renovations on the Brendan House has been raised so far, according to Scerri. Architectural plans and drawings have been donated by architect Roger Smith of BBS Architects and Engineers; Smith is a friend of the Aykroyds. Many businesses, including Home Depot, Riverhead Building Supply and Aboff’s Paints, have donated materials, she said. Many individuals have volunteered to help with the clean-up and renovation of the house.

New Beginnings is waiting on building permits in order to commence construction. The Riverhead building department referred the organization to the zoning board of appeals for an interpretation of the zoning code, to determine whether a group home would be allowed in that location. The ZBA held a hearing on the matter April 11; it was adjourned to April 25. See separate story.

Michael’s class, the Class of 2014, has decided that its senior gift will be a donation to The Brendan House. The students have done many fundraisers for Michael and The Brendan House.

“Michael needs us, as a community, to rally together to help him, help his family and help bring him home,” junior class president Carolyn Carrera said.

The Class of 2014 is currently having a flower sale to raise money to “bring Michael Hubbard home.” See order form below.

Top photo caption: Sandi and Marshall Aykroyd, parents of Brendan, for whom The Brendan House is named, speaking to a Riverhead High School Assembly Tuesday, April 9.

RiverheadLOCAL photos, except Michael Hubbard family photos, by Courtney Blasl. Michael Hubbard family photos courtesy of Nancy Reyer.

RHS Flower Sale for Brendan House by Riverhead Local

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Courtney Blasl
Courtney is a photographer, videographer, web designer and writer. She is a lifelong Riverhead resident.