By Michelle Trauring
On its surface, December 2 did not strike Michael Disher as cause for celebration. It was an ordinary enough day, he said, with physical therapy in the morning and “putting out fires and dealing with damage control” in the afternoon.
Breaking through his deadpan, he burst into laughter — a flurry of high-pitched hoots dancing with his charming Southern drawl — a familiar sound to countless actors, dancers and audiences members involved in the hundreds of productions Disher has directed across the East End, most notably at the Southampton Cultural Center.
There, he had established himself as a tireless leader and mentor, his no-nonsense, oftentimes tough exterior giving way to a warm and loving interior. His sense of time would revolve around rehearsals, opening dates and final curtain calls, which is perhaps why this particular day was momentarily lost on him.
In actuality, December 2 marked the one-month anniversary of his discharge from Grimes Center at Yale New Haven Hospital in Connecticut, where he had spent the three months prior rehabilitating from a partial paralysis following cancer and subsequent brain surgery gone awry.
Now at home with his partner, David Mrozowski, in Connecticut, the last 31 days have represented a shift toward a new normal, explained Disher, seated in his wheelchair. And with the exception of a few social media updates, he has kept largely quiet about it — a conscious exercise in self-preservation, he said, that has reached its end.
“I’m hesitant, I have to say,” he said of sharing his story. “It’s a private issue, I’m a private person, I don’t like an awful lot of information out there. Fortunately and unfortunately, I did have to put some of it out on Facebook, just so people weren’t burying me. And I mean that seriously. There were rumors that I was dying, that I was dead, I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t talk, and I was like, ‘Well, okay, you better get out there and resurrect yourself, Lazarus.’”
It was three days after the final performance of his March 2018 production, “Beauty and the Beast,” at Southampton Cultural Center that Disher first met with a neurologist about the loss of sensation in his left arm. The director had assumed it was a pinched ulnar nerve, and would ultimately correct itself.
He never imagined it would be a malignant tumor the size of a baseball, removed from the right parietal side of his brain during a craniotomy less than a week later.
“Their diagnosis on me was that I had stage 4 lung cancer, and that the tumor was a metastasis from it — meaning the genesis was, of course, the lung cancer,” Disher said. “But it was a very small nodule in the lung and nobody could actually define it as a tumor. It was so mysterious.”
The cancer would require three radiation sessions followed by chemotherapy. “It’s hard, it’s vicious, it’s ugly, and I would not wish it upon a snake,” said Disher, who was all the while directing “Meet Me in St. Louis” at the Southampton Cultural Center at this time last year, and “Love Letters” shortly thereafter.
“I just kind of said, ‘What’s gonna kill me quicker? Is it going to be cancer, or is it going to be not working?’ So I gave it a shot,” he said. “I do know doing theater and being in the theater is my core, it’s my essence. I was born, raised and thrived in exactly what I knew I was supposed to do, which was to do theater and teach. And I was so very, very lucky to have so many opportunities to do those two things, for 37 years out here, without interruption.”
But within days of “Mamma Mia!” closing this past March, a new diagnosis ground Disher to a halt. His standard MRI detected debris around the radiation site, called necrosis, and it needed to be removed.
Four months had passed without scheduling a surgery date when Disher fell to his knees in his bathroom on July 18. In less than 24 hours, he was admitted to Yale New Haven Hospital, and six days later, he went back under the knife.
“The procedure seemed very simple,” Disher said. “They said there was an 80 to 90 percent near-complete recovery, that I might need eight or nine days in physical therapy, but other than that, I’d be bouncing right back.”
When he awoke from the surgery, he could not move his left leg or arm.
“I don’t know how I felt,” he said, grief crashing over him with the memory. “Hurt. Betrayal. Incompetence. And just, what do I do now? What do I do? It’s kind of hard to dance with one leg.”
His sense of humor intact, Disher would move on August 6 to the Grimes Center, where he began his three-month-long physical and occupational therapy program that forced him to “re-learn everything,” he said.
“Basically, what happened to me, I was a toddler again,” he said. “And I’m telling you…” He trailed off, moved to tears. “I’m telling you, those people saved my life.”
What came next would be the most physically and emotionally challenging endeavor of his life, Disher said, starting with seven weeks of confinement to a 62-inch-by-40-inch bed before his first physical therapy session.
There, they told him to grasp a bar with one hand, the other hanging uselessly at his side, and pull himself up.
“I can’t do this. I can’t do it,” he recalled telling his therapists.
“You’re going to raise yourself up,” they said. “You’re going to stand up.”
And he did.
“I just cried,” he said. “I just cried and I thought, ‘I haven’t even stood up in two months.’ That was wonderful. I mean, I cried and I cry now telling the story, but I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s hope. There is hope.’”
On his release day, his family of therapists gathered around him in solidarity, snapping a quick picture together before saying goodbye and wishing Disher well as he walked “rather unsteadily” into his next chapter, he said.
“About the only visitors I’ve had since then have been therapists because that’s the way I wanted it,” he said. “A couple people came over from Long Island, which was really nice, and between the support system that I had on Long Island and David over here in Connecticut, I don’t know how people could go through anything like this without such care and without such love.”
It was only a matter of weeks before Disher received his first unexpected visitor, though, in the form of a medical bill. And they only kept coming. “I started getting bills out of the blue, and I was like, ‘What is this?’” he said. “It was absolutely shocking. Here I was thinking I was very nicely covered, and I wasn’t.”
According to a study published in the American Journal of Medicine last year, 42 percent of new cancer patients lose their entire life savings in two years due to treatment — on average, $92,098. After tracking 9.5 million cancer patients from 2000 to 2012, the study also reported that 62 percent of all cancer patients are in debt, and 55 percent of them owe at least $10,000.
To help defray some of Disher’s medical expenses, his friend Robert Strafford started a fundraiser that, with the help of 125 other people, has raised over $14,000.
“When I first saw it, my immediate reaction was I wanted to take it down,” Disher said. “Robert explained to me, very kindly and very nicely, ‘Michael, you have given to these actors, to this community, for years and years and years, and never taken a thing. Let someone help you.’ There’s pride. There’s embarrassment. I guess I was raised in that generation where you would die before you would ask for help — and given the trajectory of this little nightmare, that could have well been the case.
“Quite honestly, I don’t know what I would do right now if that money wasn’t coming in, because I’ve got bills staring me clearly in the face,” he continued. “I have never had debt in my life, just never, and I don’t know what’s coming down the pike later. This will be ongoing for the rest of my life, one I will never take for granted again.”
As for Disher’s prognosis, his neurosurgeon cannot tell him when he will regain full use of his leg and arm, if ever. That reality is felt in ordinary tasks — “I couldn’t button a shirt if I had to,” he said — but he chooses to focus on the light that has come out of this darkness, he said, and his eventual return to the theater.
“Slowly but surely, it’s getting a little better. It’s not where I want it, and I’m furious over the surgery, and I have to get past that,” he said. “But I am bound and determined to get back to where I was. Am I going to recover 100 percent? That remains to be seen. But am I going to work toward that 100 percent? Yes, I am. How quickly this happens is out of my control.”
He sighed. “But there’s still a lot of sunsets I want to see,” he said. “There’s a lot of activity from the geese and the swans on the pond that I want to see. I still want to see sunrises. I just want to wake up. I want to wake up every day and go, ‘Wow, okay, miracle or not, let’s do what need be done.’”