Loss, Love and a Brave New Life: All On Holy Saturday: The Story of Alexia Bouckoms
Simply by saying Waterbury, Conn., images of a beautifully tranquil, picturesque New England community more than likely wanders through your mind. The reality is Waterbury is just what you imagine. Nestled in the Naugatuck Valley, the history of this charming city began in 1674 as a small Town Plot section. Then, on May 15, 1686, the settlement was officially named Waterbury and was admitted as the 28th town in the Connecticut colony. Today, many well preserved landmarks, which remain precious to the residents of Waterbury and Connecticut, dot the streets, parks and riverside walkways. Whether you look north, south, east or west, you are likely to experience a view of Waterbury that could easily be the backdrop for any number of Norman Rockwell’s famous paintings. The 1,700 pound statue of Benjamin Franklin sitting in front of the Silas Bronson Library and clocks and clock towers seen from miles away are just a few of the distinct elements making Waterbury a must-see. Interestingly, Waterbury had and still has a love affair with time and the tools designed to display the seconds, minutes and hours constituting our days and nights.
The Waterbury Clock Company was built on Cherry Avenue in 1857. By the end of the century, it employed more than 3,000 people and made more than 20,000 watches and clocks a day. The company fell on hard times during the Great Depression and consequently was bought and sold several times during those years. The company still exists, but is now called the Timex Group and is headquartered in Middlebury, Conn. For kids who grew up in the '50s and '60s, very likely their first watch was a Timex. Timex became more than a watch. It was an American icon.
Timex television commercials, featuring newsman John Cameron Swayze were almost as famous as its watches. They were aired regularly on popular programs such as The Huntley-Brinkley Report, Bonanza and The Ed Sullivan Show. In 30 seconds, Swayze would oversee the torture of a Timex wristwatch in ingeniously diabolical ways. Once, one was strapped to the propeller of a motorboat. Another was taped to the teeth of an 800 pound alligator. Regardless of how and where Swayze and crew tried to end the life of the iconic timepiece, somehow it always survived. At the end of every TV ordeal, the poker faced Swayze would calmly, but emphatically declare, “Timex, it takes a licking and keeps on ticking.” Swayze was featured in Timex commercials for more than two decades.
Alexia Antczak Bouckoms was born in Waterbury, Conn., on May 3, 1954. Her father, Francis, and her mother, Helen, as well as her four siblings enjoyed the tranquil environment of Waterbury. In Bouckoms’s words, “It was a wonderful place to grow up.”Francis was a beloved dentist who would often barter for his services. Many times people would come to the Antczak home where he would practice what Bouckoms called “kitchen dentistry.” At a very early age, she would watch intently as her father would apply his skillful care for most anyone who knocked on the door. Often, he would take his little black bag full of his dental tools and treat patients at local nursing homes. His gentle hand and tender heart inspired her to follow in his footsteps and pursue a career in dentistry.
Bouckoms first steps toward becoming a dentist began at the Notre Dame Academy in Waterbury. It was a small Catholic girls’ school where uniforms were required and skirts lengths were always well below the knee. There were a total of 25 girls in her class from the first day she entered its doors until she left for college. “I got a very good, well-rounded education. The nuns were excellent teachers and made us work hard and concentrate on our studies. We also took piano and ballet lessons and other things expected of proper young women at the time,” she said.
As Bouckoms entered her junior year of high school, her brother Douglas, said, “You’re pretty smart. Why don’t you apply for college a year early?” Pushed by his encouragement, Bouckoms applied for admission to Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania. She didn’t make the cut for Cornell, but was welcomed with open arms to Pennsylvania. So, at the age of 17, Bouckoms was off to college in pursuit of a degree in biology. After her freshman year of college she returned to her high school, Notre Dame, to meet with the Mother Superior to claim her diploma. Bouckoms reminded her she had completed all her extra credits and was more than eligible to receive her diploma. The Mother Superior’s response to her request was quite surprising. She said, “No, you’re not going to a Catholic college.” So, Bouckoms walked away empty handed and to this day does not have a high school diploma.
“It’s a great story. I have a bachelor's in biology, a master's in public policy and a master's and a doctorate in public health. I’m also a dentist, but I don’t have a high school diploma,” Bouckoms said.
Needless to say, the Mother Superior’s stiff arm did little to dampen Bouckoms' goal of becoming a dentist just her dad. As her brother had suspected, his little sister’s above average smarts enabled her to zip through the University of Pennsylvania like dental floss between an incisor and a canine. One of her fondest memories of college was life in a unique dorm. It was modeled after the Harvard House concept where freshmen, sophomores, juniors, seniors, graduate students and even some faculty members lived under the same roof. All 200 plus residents ate together in the evenings in the dorm dining hall. On Wednesday evenings a casual “sherry hour” was scheduled before dinner. After dinner, a faculty member would give a lecture that would most always result in stimulating conversation. It was a fabulous learning environment that was nintellectually intoxicating for all parties.
Bouckoms’ next educational destination was dental school at the University of Connecticut in Farmington, Conn. The fact she was a dentist’s kid and had spent countless hours watching her dad patiently caring for his patients at his office, the nursing homes or in the family kitchen helped her move well beyond her classmates in the early days of dental school. Simply put, dentistry was in her DNA and gave her the intuitive skills to begin drilling deep into the clinical side of her medical education. She seemed to effortlessly complete dental school and was ready for her next academic adventure.
Her father was of course thrilled his little girl was now a dentist, but practicing dentistry, as he did, was not yet a part of her agenda. The minute she graduated from dental school she was off to China with a group from the American Medical Students Association. They visited Shanghai, Beijing and Hangzhou. “We traveled all over China and watched as patients’ teeth were being pulled and worked on while using acupuncture and other interesting things,” Bouckoms said.
After China, Bouckoms ventured to Bern, Switzerland, for a short time. There, she set up and anaerobic microbiology laboratory for Dr. Klaus Lang where she created bacteria for research. “It was a great experience. I learned to grow the really funky, bad bacteria that cause infections under your gums and results in periodontal disease,” Bouckoms said.
In March of 1980, she left Switzerland and headed for Los Angeles and a dental research meet, but on the way she made a quick stop in Connecticut to see her parents and to get married. Her fiancé, Anthony Bouckoms, who was from New Zealand and a resident physician studying psychiatry at the University Connecticut, had applied for a fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. To qualify for the fellowship, he needed to secure a visa. What better way to qualify than to marry an American girl? The happy and in love couple tied the knot with a short, but sweet, ceremony. Anthony got his fellowship, and his new bride returned to Switzerland and six more months of growing pesky bacteria for dental research. When she returned home, the newlyweds orchestrated a more elaborate and festive event to celebrate their nuptials.
Both looked forward to starting a family even though they were equally busy pursuing their careers. Their first child, Sarah, was born on Labor Day. Bouckoms completed her doctoral dissertation the first year of her daughter’s life. Two years later on Mother’s Day, their son, Miles, was born. A year and a half after Miles’ birth, his brother, Christopher, was welcomed to the family. Not long after the birth of Christopher, the Bouckoms’ moved back to Connecticut ready to plant some roots and enjoy life together. Bouckoms idled back her career to take care of the kids, but continued to work on health policy research as well as other academic endeavors. She did, however, accept a research position with the Bristol-Myers Squibb Company when Christopher entered kindergarten.
Everyone was happy, healthy and living the charmed life filled with so many wonderful blessings and possibilities.
“I was driving. Anthony was sitting in the back seat with our 6-year-old-son Christopher. Sarah and Miles were in the front with me,” Bouckoms said.
It was the winter evening of Feb. 25, 1996, when a freak windstorm hit the Hartford, Conn., area. Debris littered the streets and highways. Giant trees were uprooted blocking busy roads. A police officer stopped the Bouckoms’ car only a mile or so from their home. He instructed her to turn around and go anywhere but home to ride out the storm. She, of course, followed the officer’s instructions. Moments later, the vicious winds propelled a large tree toward their car. It hit with such intense velocity the car was crushed. Anthony and Christopher, in the back seat, were killed instantly. The branchof the tree speared in and out of Sarah’s leg. Miles was knocked unconscious for a short while.
Bouckoms was knocked out and remained in a coma for 40 days. Somehow, Sarah managed to walk away and find help. For the most part, Sarah and Miles escaped the tragic accident suffering only cuts and bruises. Miraculously, Bouckoms awoke from her coma on Holy Saturday. It was then she first learned of the loss of Anthony and Christopher. She also learned the falling tree had struck her squarely on the top of her pushing her spinal cord straight mdown. The impact injured T-9 vertebra leaving her a paraplegic.
“When Sarah and Miles entered my hospital room, I immediately asked, ‘Where is Daddy and Chrisy?’ It took me a while to assimilate the fact that my life had been horribly changed forever,” she said.
It took Bouckoms years to sort through her feelings about the events of that winter evening. With the support of family, friends and therapy, she is comfortable knowing the loss of her husband and child was not her fault. She was also given a spiritual comfort which came to her in the form of a vision while she was in a coma.
“I clearly saw Anthony and Christopher ‘on the other side.’ It assured me they were OK. It also made me feel I was spared so I could take care of our other children. It was a gift from God,” Bouckoms said.
Several years after the tragedy, a friend encouraged her to help raise money for spinal cord research, which she did. By way of her fund raising efforts, she became good friends with Christopher and Dana Reeve. All had dreams of one day joining hands and dancing at one of the many charitable events. Even though dancing may never be a reality for Bouckoms, she has found another activity to keep her healthy, happy and in high speed pursuit of new challenges and adventures.
“I have a hand crank wheelchair. I’m hand cranking all over the place and loving it. I participated in the Hartford half and the New York full marathon. I’d like to do a marathon on every continent. I’ve met so many wonderful people whenever I go hand cranking,” Bouckoms said.
She’s also happy to report both of her children are doing very well. Sarah recently completed her master’s degree in astrophysics in Christchurch, New Zealand — her father’s home country. Miles is in New York City working in the film and
When asked if she could snap her fingers and change anything about her life, she paused for a moment and then responded. “I’d gladly keep my disability if I could have my husband and son back,” Bouckoms said.
The chronic pain that comes with Bouckoms’s disability will more than likely be with her the rest of her life. So will be the lingering pain that comes with the loss of a child and spouse. Fortunately, she has given this unimaginable torture to God. She is at peace with the past and embraces her future, which includes helping women who are recently disabled.
This brilliant, funny and tough-as-nails lady from the beautifully tranquil, picturesque New England city of Waterbury, Conn., is certainly a survivor. She is committed to making every second, minute and hour of the day count. Just like a Timex watch, regardless of the diabolical challenges she has faced, Alexia Antczak Bouckoms is positive proof you can take a licking and keep on ticking.
Alexia may be reached at Alexiab9@comcast.net.
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