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Richard Bissell

One Night at the Bissell’s

Legislative Breakfast, 2000

Richard Bissell’s speech to the Massachusetts Legislature at the State House in Boston MA.  The goal was to help legislators understand what families deal with on a daily basis. 

My name is Rich Bissell and I am the father of twin six-year old boys who have disabilities.

In July of 1993, my wife Cindy gave birth to identical twin sons who were born 3-1/2 months too soon. Both boys had many of the problems common among premature infants. Eric’s most significant problem is spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy. Aaron’s problems are mostly respiratory, he has bronchopulmonary dysplasia and subglottic stenosis. Aaron’s airway was damaged from the ventilator tube when he was in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). The ventilator certainly saved his life, but no medical procedure is done without the possibility of complications. Aaron had his tracheotomy surgery at one month of age. His condition was complicated by bronchopulmunary dysplasia and he was oxygen dependent for several years. After three months in the Neonatal ICU, the boys finally came home.

When I was thinking about what I was going to say today I looked back at my journal to see what life was like during those first few hectic years. I would like to share with you a small part of that journal. This is pretty much word for word the original journal entry made back in 1994.

February 10th 1994

1:00 AM – The perching alarm has been sounding for about a full minute before I am able to pull myself out of a dreamless sleep. I know it has been ringing because my wife has already managed to make her way to Aaron’s bedside and is in the process of checking his lead wires before I am even out of the bed. It is my turn to do the night shift and I have failed miserably in allowing her to get some much-needed sleep. “Sorry Hon,” is all I can manage as she is already making her way back to bed. The alarm is no longer ringing and Aaron is sleeping comfortably. One of his monitor lead wires had come loose and the apnea monitor was no longer getting a signal telling it that Aaron was breathing.

2:15 AM – I wake up to the incessant alarm of Aaron’s saturation monitor. I wipe the sleep groggily from my eyes and check the time. All of Grafton is in restful sleep and I am envious. It was only a few months ago that we brought our twin boys home from the hospital and neither Cindy nor I have gotten a full-nights sleep since. I quickly suction Aaron turn him on his side and go back to sleep.

3:25 AM – It feels like I have just gotten back to sleep when I hear Aaron’s “Darth Vader” like respirations. Whenever his secretions build up in his airway, his breathing gets noisier and noisier until he is suctioned, making him sound like a miniature replication of the Dark Knight from the popular Star Wars movies. I check his oxygen saturation; it’s 92 and falling. If I do not suction him soon the low saturation alarm will inevitably sound. I turn on the small night light next to his crib and look at this tiny miracle. He has put on a lot of weight over the last few months and is now up to a whopping 8 pounds. The heavy drone of the suction machine is a familiar sound and he does not stir. I clear the tube with normal saline and then suction just deep enough to clear his trach tube. He barely even stirs, having learned from birth that he would have lots of interruptions during the night. His sats crawl back up to 97; his color is good, his heart rate and respirations, normal. All is well.

I take a moment to check on his brother Eric. Eric is sleeping restlessly and looks like he will soon be up. It’s been four hours since we last fed him, or was it Aaron who ate last. They look identical in every way when they sleep. I take a moment to write down the time and saturation level in Aaron’s log and then crawl back into bed.

4:30 AM – Eric is fussing and hungry. I hurry to him, before Aaron is woken by his cries. I quickly make my way to the kitchen and pop a previously prepared bottle into the microwave. As Eric eats, the constant beat of Aaron’s heart rate monitor reassures me that he is fine.

Tomorrow will soon begin the continuing routine of medical equipment, therapies, medical bills, and a constant parade of therapists, nurses, and case managers, as well as the administration of medications, treatments, and feedings that fill our days from dawn till dusk. That, coupled with the many nights of broken and nonexistent sleep, and working full-time jobs, make for cranky coffee filled mornings at the Bissell house.

But for now, Eric’s belly is full and he asleep. The constant hums and beeps of Aaron’s machines lull me back to sleep. My last thoughts are not of medical equipment, sleepless nights, or surgeries. The thoughts that send me to dream land are of two beautiful miracles that are sleeping in those cribs next to our bed. In the morning, when Eric and Aaron are looking up at me, my heart will fill with joy and pride. On the scale of life this joy easily tips the weight of all the sleepless nights and all the worry that I could ever imagine.

Even after six years of sleepless nights I still feel that way.

A few months ago my wife and I received a call from a family living in Springfield who had just brought home their three-month old daughter with a tracheostomy.  Since their child has come home, they have had many sleepless nights, medical equipment problems, insurance difficulties, and cranky coffee filled mornings.

I would like to be able to tell them that things are much better than they were six years ago and that there is a lot more support out there. But it is really not so. Many nursing agencies are short staffed and they are forced to either cut back or go out of business. A family who needs 8 – 16 hours a day of skilled nursing are lucky to get any.

For families who need a PCA or personal care attendant the situation is even worse. Nursing agencies are forced to compete with McDonalds for staff that have the responsibility of caring for our children.

Most of us would agree that children belong at home with their parents. A parent of a medically involved or disabled child has the same love for that child as the parent of a typical child does.

In order to live at home many of these children require a certain level of specialized care. It is my hope that we can work toward a goal of allowing all children to have the best possible support in their own homes.

I want to thank all of you for coming out today and hearing our stories.

Content Copyright of Richard C. Bissell


Families Organizing for Change


Diane Enochs, Area Director, Central Region DMR, Congressman Jim McGovern, Rich Bissell, Regional coordinator, Families Organizing for Change.
Diane Enochs, Area Director, Central Region DMR, Congressman Jim McGovern, Rich Bissell, Regional coordinator, Families Organizing for Change.

“Congressman McGovern has been a long time advocate of individuals with disabilities and their families, this forum is just another way for him to get out and meet the people he is representing.” This is how Rich Bissell, Regional Coordinator for Families Organizing for Change sums up the recent community forum that McGovern attended in Shrewsbury. After visiting with two Central Mass families in their homes, McGovern met with over 100 individuals with disabilities and their families.

Representatives from the Department of Mental Retardation, Matson Community Services, and the Seven Hills Foundation were also in attendance. McGovern spoke on issues of health care, education and social security before taking a series of questions from those in attendance. The local advocacy group “Central Massachusetts Families Organizing for Change” of which Bissell, a Grafton resident heads, coordinated the event. According to Bissell Families Organizing for Change is “a group of families and self advocates that have come together for mutual family support and advocacy in order to make life better for all individuals with disabilities.” Supported mainly by The Department of Mental Retardation, Families Organizing for Change provides advocacy training for families who care for a person with a disability. “Diane Enochs, (the DMR Area Director for the Central Region), has been tremendously supportive of FOC,” Bissell says, “ Without her support we would face a real uphill battle.” McGovern spoke about how “Government and Community must work together to ensure that individuals with disabilities are given opportunity and a chance to succeed.” He also spoke about “utilizing existing resources in creative and more effective ways.” “DMR seems to be taking a front seat when it comes to reaching out to the community. Supporting organizations such as FOC and Self Advocates Standing Strong (a Statewide group of individuals with disabilities) puts decision making power in the hands of the consumer, where it really belongs.” Stated Cindy Bissell, Mother of twin boys with disabilities and wife of Richard.

Issues raised at the forum included transportation problems for people who cannot drive, lack of resources at the public school, and financial difficulties faced by families who have children with disabilities. “The message that I wanted the Congressman to hear is that Families want choices. Bissell said, we are like all parents, we want to be able to keep our children safe, at home with us, and we want to be able to give them the tools that they will need to succeed in life. My sons need extra support now and they might even require a certain level of support their entire lives. They deserve the same opportunities as every other child. Eric is in a wheelchair and will need that wheelchair for his entire life. But that wheelchair is only a small part of who he is and does not totally define him. If he is given adequate support now, when he is young, there is a good chance that he will need much less support later in life, and more than that, there is a good chance that he will have a lot more opportunities for success.”

Congressman James McGovern
Congressman James McGovern