Nearly three years ago, Riverhead teenager Michael Hubbard was left fighting for his life.
The boy was seriously burned in a gel candle explosion while helping to set up a family member’s wedding celebration. Despite setbacks and several close calls, Michael survived the life-threatening injuries he suffered that May afternoon and is still in the long process of recuperating.
But the Riverhead teen has done much more than persevere.
Those bonds have extended beyond the teen himself to various charitable causes across town, including widespread support for a group home on Sound Avenue for traumatic brain injury survivors.
Through it all, Michael has brought out the best of Riverhead. Because of his inspirational, tenacious and contagious spirit, he is the News-Review’s 2013 Person of the Year.
Michael’s life changed May 28, 2011, when the then 14-year-old Riverhead High School freshman was helping family members set up a wedding celebration at his aunt’s home on Rabbit Run. Michael was refueling a citronella-scented gel candle, not knowing it had already been lit; the flame, family members later said, was invisible.
The candle, and the bottle of FireGel-brand fuel in his hand, exploded, splashing him with burning jelly. He was critically burned, damaging over 40 percent of his body. His mother, Nancy Reyer, was also burned trying to save her son.
Michael was rushed to Stony Brook University Hospital and placed into a medically induced coma. A week later, he suffered cardiac arrest, causing brain damage, kidney failure and lung distress. Doctors were able to revive him, however, and Michael slowly improved.
He was later transferred for further treatment at Blythedale Children’s Hospital in Westchester County, where he began the long, slow path to recovery — a path the teen is still on.
But while he began his rehabilitation, Michael’s story was helping to prevent further tragedies.
Media coverage of his terrible injuries, as well as those of others who were burned in gel candle explosions, helped get the product removed from store shelves.
Today, stores in Riverhead no longer sell the product. Suffolk County passed “Michael’s Law,” which banned sales of the gel in the county.
And as Michael battled for his life, the Riverhead community had his back.
“He’s just one of those kids that is always a good person and has a good heart,” said Riverhead School District Superintendent Nancy Carney. “It’s all about his smile … When anyone comes up to him and he has a smile from ear to ear, that’s all that matters.”
Numerous fundraisers — from an event at an Aquebogue vineyard to a high school “Battle of the Bands” concert — were held to help defray Michael’s medical costs and support the family.
When word got out that Michael Hubbard had been offered a place at Brendan House — a group home for those who suffered traumatic brain injuries and need constant medical attention — the community responded.
Operators of the nonprofit that is setting up the home, New Beginnings, said they’ve felt a wave of support for the proposed facility. Volunteers and donations poured in for the project.
“We’ve never worked with a community like Riverhead,” said group founder Allyson Scerri, adding that Michael’s mother has been a steadfast supporter of the nonprofit group.
Ms. Reyer will skydive for the first time on Michael’s birthday, Aug. 16, to continue fundraising for Brendan House.
After years of rehabilitation and progress, Michael returned home in June to the Peconic Bay Medical Center’s Skilled Nursing Facility.
“Coming to Peconic Bay Medical is nothing but a godsend,” Ms. Reyer said in November.
She said it has been difficult dealing with the reality of his persistent medical needs. Michael’s full-time home at Brendan House is still under construction while he is learning to talk again.
But the efforts of her community and his doctors help get her through the tough times, she said.
“[It’s] the greatest comfort knowing that everyone here loves him,” Ms. Reyer said.
Michael’s classmates with the Interact Club helped to decorate the common room of the facility and spent time with Michael. He was later named an honorary member with that club.
Michael is also expected to graduate from Riverhead High School this spring with an honorary diploma.
Ms. Carney said Michael is one of the community’s children, especially now, and the community won’t let him and his mother be forgotten in their time of need.
“Michael brings out the best in all of us,” Ms. Carney said.