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Wheelchair-bound man overcomes odds

By Francesca Dabecco, Point Park News Service:

One summer, a neighbor approached Paul Grieser in his yard and said, “You know, you’re making me look bad.”

“What are you talking about?” he responded.

“You’re out here doing yard work, and your place always looks so nice,” his neighbor said. “My wife is down there kicking my butt, asking me, ‘Why aren’t you doing this stuff? That guy is in a wheelchair doing it!’”

Paul Grieser in front of his yard. Photo credit: Francesca Dabecco, Point Park News Service

Grieser laughed. “I don’t mean to get you in trouble man. This is just what I love to do,” he said.

Grieser, 59, of Cheswick, Pa., finds his own piece of paradise in the two acres of land that surround his red-brick ranch home – the same home that he and his father built together when he was 21 years old.

“I get so much enjoyment just going outside and digging in the dirt,” Grieser said. With his “work” wheelchair and adaptive tractor, he takes care of every inch of landscape.

He also plants flowers.

“Some are perennials. I have tulips and impatiens,” Grieser said. “And whatever those yellow ones are.” He laughed.

These are the things that give him hope – hope for whatever tomorrow will bloom.

But this past summer, Grieser wasn’t able to plant and prune as much as he would have liked. He had to take care of himself first.

In November of 2015, Grieser began feeling discomfort in his abdomen and was told he had two small kidney stones.

“They misdiagnosed them,” he said. Whoever read the scan recorded that the stones were 1.9 mm. and 2.75 mm, but they were actually 1.9 cm. and 2.75 cm. His doctor told him that they were actually tumors and they were taking up about 38 percent of his right kidney.

Two weeks later, he got a call around 6:30 in the evening; there was cancer in his bladder.

“When I was first told that, at the point of impact, I was like, ‘This can’t be happening,’” Grieser said.

He was in shock. He looked outside, the place that often provided him comfort. “It was overwhelming,” he said. “I’m looking at the trees and I’m looking at the sky, and I’m thinking, ‘I don’t want to not be able to see this. I don’t want to lose this.’”

The coming days were filled with more tests, surgery and rounds of chemotherapy.

“I think, after the initial shock of it, the first thing I wanted to know was, ‘Am I going to die right away?’” he said. “I’ve had four friends recently that have passed away after they were diagnosed with cancer. It’s way too many… and these were good friends.”

One friend he met at a bar on a Wednesday. “He said he wasn’t feeling well and left early,” Grieser said. “Friday he went to the hospital and was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer.” Grieser visited his friend on the following Monday. By Thursday, he was dead.

Another friend of Grieser was diagnosed one month after him.

“She just passed away in January,” he said. “So all of this was going through my mind.”

But this wasn’t the first time Grieser found himself in intensive hospital care.

As a junior in high school, he was 6’2” and 235 pounds. He played the first string offensive/defensive tackle on the football team.

“I felt the world was mine for the taking and I was virtually indestructible,” Grieser said.

But after one night and oncoming headlights, that all changed. Grieser and his motorcycle were forced off a bridge by the impact of a car and catapulted 40 feet over the side of a bridge.

“I remember crashing through trees and having the wind knocked out of me as I came to an abrupt stop from hitting the ground,” he said.

He woke up to find himself in the emergency room of West Penn Hospital with several doctors frantically trying to decide where to start.

“After several minutes of poking and prodding, the doctors and nurses suddenly stood back from the table,” he said. “A priest appeared and administered last rites.”

They thought he was going to die.

After 14 hours of surgery, he awoke in intensive care with needles and hoses protruding from every part of his body.

“I broke my back in four places, both collar bones, both shoulder blades, my sternum, nine ribs, three of which had punctured my left lung, and my left ankle in six places,” he said.

Grieser spent the following eleven months in the hospital for rehabilitation.

“I was basically told I would never walk again,” he said.

But what helped him stay optimistic then and continues to help him now is the unwavering support of his friends and family.

“I have friends who say, ‘Alright, well, first of all, they didn’t kill you with the motorcycle accident. This isn’t going to kill you. You’re just going to go forward and you’re going to beat it,’” Grieser said.

For Grieser, these positive thoughts are half the battle.

“You have to start thinking, ‘Okay, I’m not going to lay back and let this thing take over my life. I’m going to fight back and even if I lose the battle, I’m still going to be fighting it on the way out,'” he said.

“When I first got hurt, I was young,” he said. “I’m 59 years old now. And when they tell you that you have cancer, the end seems closer than the beginning.”

But Grieser knows that he has a lot of living and loving left to do.

Recently he received news that his tumors have remained stable and the cancer hasn’t spread.

“It means the chemo is working,” he said.

So when he returned home after his appointment and saw another one of his neighbors outside, he decided to share the good news.

She was beaming with joy.

“The first thing she said to me was, ‘Paul is going to be in the yard this summer!’”

This piece is part of a project on Apocalyptic writing. It will be featured in a print magazine that will be presented at the 8th Annual Undergraduate Research Symposium on Friday, April 21, 2017 in the Center for Media Innovation on Point Park University’s campus. 

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