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Eager for second chance at life Inexhaustible determination, family support bring teen athlete back from near-fatal stroke

Small steps became beacons of hope for 14-year-old Nick Giangreco's family and friends.

Their spirits soared when Nick blinked his eyes to signal yes or no, moved his wrist and had his first taste of applesauce.

"I would ask him to show me one new thing a day," said Sharon Giangreco, Nick's mother. "He would show me three things. Then he would do three more. I knew then that eventually he would be OK."

Nine months ago, Nick Giangreco was left largely paralyzed, and unable to speak or eat, after suffering a near-fatal stroke on the bench at a St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute football game.

Today, he's back home with his family in Clarence, playing table tennis, going to dinner with his friends and -- after three months in the hospital -- looking forward to returning to St. Joe's in the fall.

Nick's story is one of unwavering determination and faith, optimism even in the darkest moments, and a family and community that rallied against overwhelming odds.

"This young man wanted to get better, and there wasn't anything that was going to stop him," said Robert T. Scott, St. Joe's principal and president. "Hard work can do so much. Dedication can do so much."

Nick, a member of the St. Joe's freshman football team, suffered a massive stroke Oct. 26. He was in uniform for the game but had not played.

He had very limited movement after the stroke and got off a ventilator and beat pneumonia just to survive.

But survival was never enough for Nick, even in the horrifying first days when his life hung in the balance and he was unable to communicate with his family.

"In the beginning, I just kept thinking that I was going to get better every day," he said.

Movement slowly returned to his body. Hours and hours of therapy paid off, first at Women and Children's Hospital and then at Erie County Medical Center. Nick got out of bed and into a wheelchair, then regained mobility on a walker and a cane.

Emotions spilled over on Christmas Eve, when Nick made his first visit home.

Nick and his father, Paul, cried for an hour in the car before going inside. Then they cried together for another two hours in the house.

Paul Giangreco left his job as vice president of Sysco Food Services so either he or Sharon could be with Nick round-the-clock in the hospital. While one parent was with Nick, the other made life as normal as possible for their two younger children, Maria, 12, and Marc, 11.

"We're going to get stronger together," Paul Giangreco said of the family's approach. "This wasn't going to make us fail."

The Giangrecos brought Nick food from his favorite restaurants, kept a journal of his progress, maintained a Web site to update family and friends (www.howsnick.org) and managed to establish a family atmosphere even in the hospital.

Five o'clock, for example, was time for dinner while watching television.

"We would watch TV, and we would laugh," Paul Giangreco said. "I think that really brought us together."

Then there was the day Nick gained enough hand movement to text message his friends.

"He was like a kid in a candy store," Paul Giangreco said. "I said, 'He's going to be fine.' "

The family also rallied around Nick's determination to keep up with his schoolwork and to move on to the sophomore class in September with his friends from St. Joe's.

With the help of a tutor and hours of homework each day, he managed an 89.6 average and passed all his final exams, including Regents biology.

"Beginning before Christmas, Nick and his family made a decision that he was going to do what was necessary to complete his freshman year," Scott said, "and he did."

Nick returned home Jan. 23, and the milestones continued.

When he and his mother attended a mother-son liturgy at St. Joe's in March, more than 700 people stood and applauded them -- not once but twice.

Tonight, the swim team at Transit Valley Country Club will dedicate its season to Nick, who was named "Mr. Transit Valley" last year because of his athletic prowess. Nick's favorite sport is tennis, but he also has excelled at swimming, diving, golf, soccer and baseball, in addition to being a fine pianist.

Now, on the rebound, Nick walks unaided and converses well. With continuing therapy, his limp, body stiffness and labored speech are becoming less and less pronounced.

But uncertainties remain.

Nick's stroke was caused by a blood clot at his brain stem, but it remains unclear what prompted the clot, or whether there is a hereditary condition that puts him or his siblings at further risk.

The Giangrecos' concern was amplified in May when Nick had a TIA, or transient ischemic attack. Although Nick suffered no damage, a TIA -- sometimes called a ministroke -- is often an early warning sign of an impending stroke caused by a clogged artery in the brain.

What prompted Nick's initial stroke? What can be done to prevent further problems? Might Maria and Marc also be at risk?

Paul Giangreco is seeking medical answers to those questions, and, he said, "I'm not going to rest until I figure it out."

Nick, who celebrates his 15th birthday Sunday, remains the picture of modesty and inexhaustible determination.

"I do the best I can to get better every day," he said. "That's my life right now."

And the future?

Ultimately, he wants to become a sports trainer or physical therapist.

But first, he wants to get back on the tennis court and become the best player in Western New York.

Don't bet against it.

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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