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April 28, 2003

Martial arts instructor still kicking in spite of disability

From: The Saratogian, NY - Apr 28, 2003

CARI SCRIBNER, For The Saratogian
April 28, 2003

SARATOGA SPRINGS -- A tall, strapping man with a second-degree black belt in karate, John Buscema is the last person in the world anyone would associate with a physical disability.

But 18 months ago, Buscema, 45, who lives in Gansevoort and teaches kick-boxing at 75 Woodlawn Ave. in Saratoga Springs, contracted viral meningitis. He was traveling with his wife and son in Massachusetts at the time, but how and where he picked up the virus is a mystery.

''All I know is, we decided to leave our vacation early, and I started getting a headache on the drive back. By the time we arrived home, my head felt like it was going to explode,'' he said.

Terrified, Buscema went immediately to the emergency room, where doctors performed a spinal tap.

''As they drew out two tubes of fluid, they told me if it was cloudy, then it could be treated with antibiotics, but if it was clear, there was nothing they could do for me,'' he said, shuddering at the memory. ''Sure enough, the fluid was clear. They gave me prescription painkillers and sent me home.''

The virus caused severe swelling in Buscema's brain. By the next day, he was back at the hospital.

''I felt like a bicycle pump was blowing up my brain. At certain points, they had to tie me down so I didn't hurt anyone or myself. I was hallucinating. At one point, I vomited for 10 straight hours,'' he said.

Today, he is legally deaf and has high blood pressure and almost constant vertigo. Worse still, the swelling caused brain damage that has permanently affected his communication abilities.

''I have incredible motion sickness all the time, and I've started wearing a patch that helps somewhat but causes other side effects like dry mouth,'' he said. ''I have memory loss; I frequently forget what I'm saying by the end of one sentence. I used to love to read books, but I can't now, because once I finish a page, I forget what I've read.''

Although legally disabled, Buscema refused to give up his passion for martial arts. Over the years, he's taught a very popular continuing education class through the Saratoga Springs City School District, at the YMCA and at several local studios. For six months recently, he ran a kick-boxing studio called ''Burn and Learn'' on Front Street in Ballston Spa. Many of his classes are devoted to teaching students from the Saratoga ARC.

''Many teachers don't want to work with the physically or mentally disabled students, but I can relate to them. I know what it's like to be talking and have people look at you funny,'' he said.

Buscema tailors each class to the needs of his students that particular day or evening.

''I call them my 'stress breaker' classes, because I want people to leave feeling refreshed,'' Buscema said. ''My ARC students let me know when they're tired -- they just lie down on the floor when they've had enough.''

Buscema would like to start a kick-boxing association as well as work with trainers for Special Olympics.

''I lost a lot of money running my own studio, possibly because I didn't charge very much,'' he said. He charged about $75 for 12 classes.

His students range in age from 12 to 65, and Buscema is quick to point out his kick-boxing is for the disabled and the non-disabled.

''I have a lot of ideas,'' he said. ''I refuse to be limited by my disability. I won't let it rob me of my enthusiasm for life.''

Contact Buscema at 581-0146 or drop in to watch a class at 75 Woodlawn Ave., Saratoga Springs.

©The Saratogian 2003