The last thing he heard, before his body became numb, was that he won. For five years, Dan Bishop had worked toward becoming a champion in college wrestling, and on March 6 he had reached the finals in the Mid-American Conference Tournament at Central Michigan. Now, if only he could move his arms and legs.
It must have been another stinger, he figured. He had suffered a few of them throughout the season, when the senior at the University at Buffalo would get caught in the wrong position, pinch a nerve near his shoulder and temporarily lose feeling in his arms. But the sensation always came back, he thought, and it would this time, too.
He would get his shot.
Today, three weeks after getting flipped on his head and having his life turned upside down, his biggest victories are completing daily chores others take for granted. He's getting dressed by himself. Early last week, he began walking with assistance. He's texting family and friends. He's breathing on his own.
"I'm still kicking," Bishop said with a laugh from his hospital room at Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital in Schenectady.
In medical terms, he suffered a dislocation between his C5 and C6 vertebrae in a 125-pound match against Ohio's Gabe Ramos. In simple terms, he broke his neck. He didn't learn such facts until he woke up from surgery on a ventilator with little movement in his extremities and no guarantees.
His wrestling career is over. He's likely finished academically for the semester, pushing back official graduation until December. He might never regain full strength in his right hand. His goal last week was performing exercises that allow him to get into and out of a car so he can spend today with his family in their home in Whitehall, near Lake George.
For all that has been taken away, his story is not about what was lost. It's about what was gained, starting with a perspective that he never knew existed. It's the start of a new life, a different life, a better life. It's about a small man with a big heart who can inspire anyone who ever took life for granted.
>More and more thankful
"There's definitely something or someone on my side," he said. "I know that. I didn't know that at first, but as I advance every day I become more and more thankful. I wasn't the most religious kid before but, honestly, a situation like this can really change you and open your eyes to new horizons."
He's a lucky man, Dan Bishop, because it could have been much, much worse if not for a string of fortune that began the moment he lay motionless on his back. If there was a single breakdown along the way, there's a strong possibility he would be paralyzed from the middle of his chest down.
For a competitive athlete like him, known for boundless energy and tireless work ethic, what's the difference? Take his arms and legs and, as far as he's concerned, you might as well take the rest. And for three days, with very little movement in his arms and legs, paralysis seemed a very real possibility.
"The worst couple days of my life," Bishop said Saturday. "If you're a wrestler, you're a top-notch athlete even if you're the worst on your team. To look down and beg your legs to move and your feet to move, and nothing, it was pretty scary. I thought I was paralyzed. I'm the luckiest guy in town."
It began with UB trainer Allison Gammell and medical staff properly treating him on the scene and taking the right precautions when nobody understood the severity of his injury. It continued, as inflammation around his spinal cord increased and his condition worsened, with a decision to move him by helicopter from a nearby hospital to St. Mary's Hospital of Michigan.
One of the top neurosurgeons in the world, Dr. E. Malcolm Field, lived nearby in Saginaw Valley. He has performed some 56,000 surgeries in his 52-year career and has become a man of local legend. Who knew the Michael Jordan of neurosurgeons would be on call that night at St. Mary's, one of the top trauma facilities in the Midwest?
"Him being there was just astonishing," said Bishop's father, Norm. "People told me that Dr. Field was working on Danny. We were like, 'Who is Dr. Field?' They were like, 'You don't know Dr. Field?' Once they told us about him, we were thanking God. He's 80 years old but when he shakes your hand, you know you got your hand shook."
>Quick decision correct
Field took one look at preliminary exams of Bishop's spinal cord, rushed to the hospital 15 minutes later and began emergency surgery. He led a team that fused the vertebrae and inserted a plate to support the spine. Had medical personnel followed the initial plan and waited until the next morning, Bishop would have suffered irreversible paralysis and might have spent the rest of his life on a ventilator.
"I didn't think he had much of a chance," Field said. "Our impression was that here was a kid that we either do this now or you might as well never do it. It was very close."
Field's gifted hands saved Bishop's neck and, by extension, his arms and legs and, by extension, his life. Bishop's aggressive approach in therapy astounded hospital personnel and inspired other patients. His idea of winning has been redefined, his love for life rediscovered, his self-confidence rejuvenated and his future restored.
"This has definitely opened up my eyes and a lot of my friends' eyes," he said. "It's not even that it's my life that's better. It's affecting people in a positive way. A lot of people are upset over this, but a lot of people are also saying that I'm helping them because I've been so positive. It's just nice to hear, you know?"
Wrestlers by nature are disciplined, strong, hard-working and independent, qualities that have served him well over the past 10 days. Bishop had a reputation for being an ornery, wise-cracking smartaleck who always had something to prove. He's 5-foot-4 and 125 pounds, including the 120-pound chip on his shoulder, but he's tougher than boot camp. He is definitely not someone you should bet against.
The start of his wrestling career is hardly a surprise. He was in eighth grade and came to the assistance of a classmate who was getting picked on by a senior at Whitehall Central. Bishop, as his father said, "beat the snot out of the kid." Two wrestling coaches who broke up the fight gave him two choices: school suspension or school wrestling team.
Undefeated as a senior and 167-6 in his final four years of high school, he had three difficult seasons at UB. He was 32-52 before a surprise fourth-place finish last year in the conference tournament. He spent much of last summer on a strict diet while training in Buffalo with the idea he would leave college with no regrets.
He took a 19-7 record into the conference tournament and met Ramos in the semifinals. Ramos was trying to lift Bishop in an effort to better his position. The lifting wrestler is responsible to ensure a safe landing for his opponent. Bishop refused to succumb and his head was caught in a bad position.
"And that's when my whole body went numb," he said. "I couldn't move my legs. I couldn't move my arms. That's when all the adrenaline left my body. They put me in the stretcher, and I tried doing the classic thumbs-up to the crowd, but I couldn't even do that. That's when I knew it was something more extreme than a stinger."
>No ill feelings
Bishop was declared the winner by injury default, a miniscule victory compared to the others in the past three weeks. He harbors no ill feelings toward Ramos, whose father has become friends with Bishop's father.
Simply, it was an accident.
Bishop was stable enough to be moved March 18 to Schenectady to begin his rehabilitation. His humble, hard-working parents, brother and sisters make the 75-minute drive whenever they can to be near his side.
You might say he's making great strides. Last week alone, 20 small steps with assistance turned into 20 minutes on a treadmill in a harness to standing without help and walking with a walker. His only difficult moment emotionally came last week, when the reality hit home after his father showed him a video of him laboring in therapy.
"I bawled like a baby," he said.
The next day, he was back to work. His new sport now is challenging himself in therapy and making progress every day. Last week, Bishop was informed he could be discharged from the rehabilitation center April 13, about three months ahead of schedule. And that brings us back to the biggest win of his college career.
It's the one that matters most but he has yet to achieve.
Bishop will likely need to withdraw from his classes this semester while continuing his therapy and earn his degree in sociology in December. However, he has been told he would be allowed to attend graduation ceremonies in May. He plans to walk across the stage to pick up his diploma, turning his worst tragedy into his greatest triumph.
"I'm going to make a full recovery," he said. "I'm doing everything I can. They're telling me that I'm actually working too hard in therapy and that I'm going to burn myself out. I told them, 'You can't break me. There's no way.' That's just a wrestler's mentality. And I'm a wrestler."
Contributions to assist Daniel Bishop and his family can be sent to Danny Bishop Fund, P.O. Box 5, Whitehall, N.Y. 12887.