LOCKPORT – Matthew Angelucci faced plenty of challenges in an endurance athletic challenge last month, but it was nothing compared with what his uncle has been facing for the last three years.
Despite several medical setbacks and surgeries, Michael Tomaino, of the Town of Lockport, is still battling the aftermath of a brain aneurysm that has left him spending most of his time either in bed or a wheelchair.
Angelucci, 24, used Tomaino’s story as motivation to enter the World’s Toughest Mudder competition and as inspiration to keep going in the 24-hour endurance test.
He completed 10 laps of a 5-mile obstacle course that featured crawling through drainpipes, splashing through icy water, diving under barbed wire and trying to avoid live wires that offered a 10,000-volt shock to the unwary.
Angelucci raised between $2,000 and $2,500 – results are still coming in – for the Brain Aneurysm Foundation with his effort in the Nov. 16-17 contest in Old Bridge Township, N.J.
“We’re donating it for research in Mike’s honor,” said Alycia Tomaino, his wife of seven years.
Michael Tomaino, 45, spends his nights in a long-term skilled nursing facility, the McAuley Residence in the Town of Tonawanda. Most days, he’s brought to his home in Lockport to be with Alycia and their two sons, Tyler, 7, and Nathan, 5.
Tomaino is a prominent member of the Lockport community, the co-owner of three businesses, an active Rotarian and recipient of a proclamation from Mayor Michael W. Tucker for his services to the city.
But on Oct. 11, 2010, Tomaino collapsed in front of his wife in the middle of the night, leading to three years of struggle whose end is not yet in sight.
Angelucci, a marketing manager for Lactalis, parent company of Sorrento Cheese, got the idea of entering World’s Toughest Mudder after completing a much shorter Tough Mudder event in Toronto last year.
“I thought one lap was hard enough; you’d never find me doing that for 24 hours,” Angelucci said. But he was coaxed into entering by Dennis Lesniak, owner of Crossfit 716, the North Tonawanda gym where Angelucci works out. Lesniak became his mentor as he prepared for World’s Toughest Mudder.
“The idea came out because Mike and Alycia had been almost like second parents to me. They’d helped me through some harder times, and I wanted to repay them,” Angelucci said. “My first thought was trying to win it, but I was told to do fundraising on a per-lap basis, so if I didn’t win it, I could still provide them with something.”
Trying to complete as many laps as possible on the 5-mile course also helped him with his mental preparation.
“You’re basically running through fields, woods, sometimes a lot of uphills depending on the course, and then they’ll build obstacles around the track they set up,” Angelucci said. “Walls, mud pits, you’re crawling under barbed wire, electric shock. Sometimes they’ll have fire obstacles. The Tough Mudder was set up by the British Special Forces, and then they took it and made it more of a public event for people to test their endurance.”
Angelucci finished 10 laps, or 50 miles, in 20½ hours, placing 32nd out of 145 contestants in the 20-24 age group.
“I wanted to win, but the winner last year, in 2012, did 90 miles. The winner this year did 100, so it’s a good thing I did it on a per-lap basis,” Angelucci said. He said he sent out an email to his gym friends and people who knew Mike Tomaino, asking for pledges. The Rotary Club of Lockport made a large donation, he said.
Those interested in making a donation to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation in Tomaino’s honor may contact Angelucci by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Mike hasn’t complained or really said anything negative about his situation. He hasn’t given up on fighting against incredible odds. To do something I hate for 24 hours and run and put myself through the wringer, it was a great way to honor Mike,” Angelucci said.
Knowing that the money was adding up based on laps inspired Angelucci to keep going through the night. “It helped drive me,” he said. “The later laps, it really helped.”
Angelucci stayed on the course from 10 a.m. Nov. 16 until 6:30 a.m. Nov. 17.
“You could stop in between each lap. You had this pit area with your tent and your food,” Angelucci said. “Once I finished lap 50, I sat down. My body just couldn’t take it anymore.”
Angelucci has chosen to put himself through that challenge, of course, in honor of Mike Tomaino.
Tomaino’s devastating subarachoid hemorrhage, a life-threatening burst of a blood vessel deep inside his brain, came out of the blue.
“He woke me up and said, ‘Alycia, I have the worst headache I’ve ever had,’ and then he just went down,” his wife recalled.
A neurological team at the now-closed Millard Fillmore Hospital at Gates Circle in Buffalo saved his life, but multiple strokes followed, leading to emergency surgery to relieve swelling of his brain, and the implantation of two shunts to drain fluid from the brain.
Despite all that, Tomaino managed to return home Dec. 31, 2010, with little impairment and a strong prognosis for recovery.
However, it didn’t work out that way. Fluid kept forming on his brain, despite three more operations to try to stop it. “They couldn’t get it right. It wasn’t regulating,” Alycia said. “He was always having symptoms because of that. He was sleeping a lot, couldn’t perform physically the way he had.”
“His verbal skills were more difficult,” said Brenda Angelucci, mother of Matthew and sister of Alycia Tomaino, who was living with the couple at the time. They used picture cues, flash cards and other means to help him communicate.
“He certainly understood everything that was going on and was able to participate in decision-making,” Brenda Angelucci said. “Alycia’s always been really, really good at understanding him and knowing what he wants and needs.”
In November 2011, after a fall while attempting to walk at home, Tomaino suffered a bleed between the brain and the inside of the skull.
Rushed back to Millard Fillmore Hospital, Tomaino nearly died that night from respiratory distress and was on life support for four months. Doctors discovered that scar tissue from the original aneurysm and all the subsequent surgery was choking off his brain stem. Doctors opened his skull again Jan. 2, 2012, and decided the scar tissue was inoperable.
Tomaino, able to communicate only with difficulty, insisted on an attempt to remove the scar tissue, even though doctors from University at Buffalo Neurosurgery said his chances of surviving were only 5 percent.
But survive he did. The operation on Feb. 1, 2012, removed as much of the scar tissue as possible, and Tomaino was able to eventually breathe on his own and return to rehab.
His speech is significantly impaired, to the point where it’s difficult for outsiders to understand him, and he receives nourishment through a feeding tube in his stomach. He also wears a neck brace because of a fractured vertebrae; it’s unknown when that injury occurred.
But Tomaino is not paralyzed; he can move his arms and legs. “He can walk himself all over this house” in his wheelchair, Alycia Tomaino said.
Fluid continues to build up on his brain, although Dr. Jody Leonardo of UB Neurosurgery and Buffalo General Medical Center, who has performed all of his surgeries, implanted a shunt. Its drainage rate is controlled through the skin by a magnet that moves a knob implanted inside Tomaino’s neck.
Through it all, Alycia Tomaino said her husband has never complained or indulged in self-pity. “We have never heard him say one negative thing through this entire ordeal,” she said.
Alycia Tomaino, a social worker for the Buffalo Public Schools, had good medical insurance, but rehabilitation coverage was limited. There was a giant “dinner and disco” fundraiser at Cornell Cooperative Extension that did a lot of good, but eventually the family had to hire attorneys from the Williamsville law firm Schop, Powell & Allen to get Mike Tomaino onto Medicaid.
“Medicaid has been a blessing, because they cover his skilled nursing care right now,” Alycia Tomaino said.
Friends from Lockport and from the family’s church, Holy Cross Lutheran in Clarence, also have helped from the very start, Alycia Tomaino said.
“Everybody loves Mike,” she said, “and it certainly shows. They still do.”