Six years ago, a brain tumor left Michael Blavis with limited mobility and speech. Now, he's taking steps toward his future.
Recent Seabreeze High School alumnus Michael Blavis couldn't focus during his graduation ceremony. The speeches and announcements came and went, and as his time to collect his diploma and shake the hands of faculty in front of his classmates, friends and family arrive, Blavis was only fixated on one thing:
What if he tripped?
While a common concern for many graduates during this milestone, it ran deeper for this 18-year-old. Blavis had spent years of his life working toward this moment, and on May 31, six years after having a cancerous tumor removed from his brain, Blavis stood up from his wheelchair and walked across the stage.
“Honestly, it felt kind of weird," Blavis said. "But it felt good.”
His mother Lynette Johnson was at the end of the stage, taking photos and so overwhelmed with emotion she mistakenly didn't record Blavis with her video camera. It's a day she's likely never going to forget, though.
“He was the star," Johnson said. "Everybody just started standing up. The students stood up. It was a wave of red standing up and cheering.”
Blavis' journey to the stage wasn't an easy one. It started in middle school.
Johnson and Blavis first moved to Ormond Beach from New Jersey six years ago. Everything was an adjustment for the both of them. It was new city, Blavis was going to a new school and had to make new friends. Around Christmas that year, Johnson said Blavis started complaining about nausea and double vision. He told her he was falling asleep in classes.
A few visits to the doctor's later, the symptoms were chalked up to Blavis having trouble adjusting to all the changes.
Then summer came, and Johnson sent Blavis back up north to the same summer camp he'd attended for the previous five year. But the symptoms remained. They saw a pediatrician in New Jersey, who recommended Blavis start seeing a psychiatrist.
It wasn't until they came back home and Blavis had a back-to-school health checkup that doctors discovered what was wrong. Blavis underwent a simple vision test, and his eyes twitched. Immediately, the doctor wanted to send Blavis to get a brain MRI.
“I thought, ‘well that’s a little drastic for an upset stomach,'" Johnson recalled.
A few days later, Johnson took Blavis to Twin Lakes Imaging Center after school. She waited for a long time, she remembered. Eventually, the doctor came out and told her he had something to show her.
Blavis had a tumor the size of a golf ball between the back of his brain and the brain stem. The doctor told them there was a surgeon waiting for them at Florida Hospital for Children in Orlando, and to grab a few changes of clothes before heading down there because they were going to stay for some time.
Neither of them had ever travelled to Orlando.
“I-4 was terrible," Blavis said.
“Yeah, even back then, right?” Johnson said.
Blavis' father flew down from New Jersey, where he was still working to sell the family house, and the surgery was done. Doctors had reassured Johnson that many kids had undergone the same procedure and were up and moving within four weeks. However, she informed of a rare side effect called cereberall mutism where the child's mobility and speech diminishes after surgery.
“I was just terrified," Johnson said.
The surgery took six hours, and she remembered Blavis gave her a thumbs up before being taken into intensive care to recover. However, when his medicines were gradually reduced in the days following, Blavis couldn't talk or move. He could barely squeeze people's hands, Johnson said.
She knew her son's brain was functioning, though, because he could understand what she was saying and would signal 'no' and 'yes' with his eyes. They later would discover that along with the cereberall mustism, there had been some nerve damage during the surgery.
Blavis lungs failed, and he was given a feeding tube. What followed was a year of physical therapy and chemo.
Then, Blavis' dad had a stroke in New Jersey. It was the stress, Johnson said. Her husband was in intensive care for about four months, and there were times were she thought she was going to lose him and she couldn't be up there with him. Blavis was in no condition to travel.
Though his father's condition improved and was able to come down to Ormond Beach, he died two years ago.
“So Michael had to live through that too — seeing his dad sick and losing dad,” Johnson said.
Smiling through it all
Blavis never lost his sense of humor.
When he was given an iPad to communicate, the first thing he asked for a Coca-Cola. He couldn't eat or drink anything, but that didn't stop him from asking.
Eventually, he was gifted with a Coca-Cola flavored chapstick, but it wasn't quite the same, Blavis recalled.
He dressed up on Halloween that year in the hospital too. He decided he was going to be Honey Boo Boo. He spelled it out for his mom on the iPad. Then, at home, he dressed up as a zombie, calling himself "the Rolling Dead."
Reaching for the diploma
Blavis didn't want to fall behind in school. He was homeschooled for about four months and was able to get back on track with his peers, returning to school at the end of eight grade. Still, things were tough. Blavis was shy, and the social aspect of school was hard on him.
“Everyone else had hair, and all this stuff, and I was I guess, just in the wheelchair, kind of thing?" Blavis said. "But it was all good. I eventually just kept going through.”
Johnson said Blavis felt he couldn't show his humor to the other students. He felt different — he was constantly late for classes, had to leave early to avoid the hallway rush in between classes, and couldn't use the elevator on his own.
However, Blavis persisted and graduated with a B average.
After graduation, Blavis and his family celebrated at Sloppy Joe's at Oceanwalk. There was a double rainbow over the water, Johnson recalls, and despite what everyone said at the time, she doesn't think it was a coincidence.
“I’m like, ‘Michael, that’s daddy saying how proud he is,'" Johnson said.
Recently, Blavis passed the written test for his driver's permit. Other than sleeping in, Blavis said he will be attending Daytona State College in the fall to study computer science. He's already signed up for classes, even graduating from high school still feels like a dream.
“I’m still at home like, ‘wow, I forgot to do my homework,'" Blavis said. "And then I realize it’s all over, you know? Feel great though.”