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This article about our own "Golfer Gary" appeared in the Daily Tribune On September 20, 2004.
Survivor beat the odds

PUBLISHED: September 20, 2004

ROYAL OAK — In one month more than two years ago Gary Benchich lost 65 pounds.

But Benchich's weight loss to 180 pounds wasn't the result of planned diet and exercise routine. It was from the West Nile virus, which is transmitted by mosquitoes and typically infects more people in August and September.

Benchich was among 644 human cases confirmed in Michigan in 2002 resulting in 51 deaths, including 20 in Oakland County. Last year, there were 19 human cases and two deaths reported in the state. This year, only five human cases have been reported so far and none of the victims have died.

Benchich's ordeal in battling the West Nile virus is one of courage and hope, and a story he says he is lucky to tell.

Benchich, 62, of Royal Oak, credits trauma physicians at William Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak with saving his life; visiting nurse therapists with getting him back on his feet; and a family doctor with helping him through a slow but sure recovery.

His personal physician, Robert Hasbany, whose practice is in Madison Heights, called Benchich's recovery "remarkable."

"He's playing golf and is now starting back to work," said Hasbany, who suggested Benchich has been determined to make a recovery.

Hasbany said Benchich was on about 15 life-saving medications when he was referred to him. Hasbany "weaned" Benchich from the medications over the past year. Now Benchich is taking one medicine, he said.

Though Benchich is not 100 percent back-to-health, Hasbany said he expects Benchich will make a full recovery with exercise, therapy and his strong sense of determination.

Benchich has come a long way since he was hospitalized Sept. 11, 2002, with a 105-degree temperature and blood pressure of 260/160.

He went into a coma two days later and didn't regain consciousness for a month. During that time he lost 65 pounds.

Benchich spent the next six months in a Warren nursing home, his strength sapped from muscle loss and barely able to do the simplest of daily chores like feeding and dressing himself. During much of the time, Benchich couldn't even walk.

"When I got home I was in the care of the Visiting Nurses Association of Michigan for three months," said Benchich Thursday from the Royal Oak Eagles Club. "I had a nurse, an occupational therapist and a physical therapist. The physical therapist — known to him only as Lynn — "put me through the ringer," he said.

"She really got me going," he said. "Before I started those three-a-week sessions I couldn't get out of the wheelchair. When I was done, I could stand. When I was at the nursing home it took me 45 minutes to put my socks on. My muscle mass went to nothing. Now I'm lifting weights."

But all wasn't positive during Benchich's recovery. When he was in the nursing home, he felt his his progress had slowed.

"I had to fight depression," he said. "I wondered what was going to happen to me. Everyone thinks this happens only to old people. But I talked to younger people in (West Nile) support groups who are paralyzed for life. They said insurance companies no longer would insure them."

Benchich hung on with encouragement from friends in clubs like the Eagles, Elks, American Legion and Moose organizations to which he belonged.

"I credit them for picking up my spirits," Benchich added. "I talked and saw friends from all over."

Benchich is a 27-year Royal Oak resident, who grew up in Detroit and lived in Lathrup Village. He attended University of Michigan and then Wayne State University as an undergraduate and Eastern Michigan's graduate school.

In his youth, Benchich chummed around and played golf with friends on the U of M golf team. Before his bout with West Nile virus, Benchich could drill the golf ball with an accurate draw about 270 yards as a four handicapper.

He didn't play for two years and just recently played three golf rounds, the last scoring a season low 88.

"Now I hit it about 175 yards," he said. "Now it takes me two woods to hit the green."

But golf remains a love of his life and one that also has figured into his recovery.

"I've strived to do two things in golf as I got better. Both are long time tournaments that I often played in," Benchich said. "One was to play in the Caseville Eagles outing and I played that last weekend. The second is to play in the Biloxi (Mississippi) Elks Club invitational tournament and I'm waiting to play that in October."

Benchich is slowly getting back to work as a sales representative for golf equipment and as a salesman for Cellular Cellutions in Royal Oak.

"I think some people have been trying to get a hold of me (from a previous cellular telephone sales job)," he added. "I thank the (Cellular Cellutions) manager who has been a godsend to me. He's letting me come in for short periods."

In the meantime, Benchich continues to progress despite still battling encephalitis.

"I think it's a will to live," added Benchich. "Who wants to vegetate? I was determined I was going to get better."

Contact John Michalak at or 248-591-2521.