Life Stories

LIFE STORIES: Quincy man sacrifices as wife, sons battle Huntington's disease

Rich Bliven poses for a portrait in a hallway at the Good Samaritan Home, where is wife, who has Huntington's disease, is a resident. Both of his sons also have been diagnosed with the disease. | H-W Photo/Jake Shane
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jul. 31, 2017 8:35 am Updated: Jul. 31, 2017 8:43 am

QUINCY -- Rich Bliven has endured immeasurable heartache over the past few decades watching his wife slowly fade away before his eyes. But if he had to do it over, he says would choose the same life.

Bliven's wife, Jennifer, has Huntington's disease, a fatal degenerative condition that breaks down nerve cells in the brain. The disease has confined her to a nursing home and irreparably altered the couple's lifestyle.

"If I knew that I was going to have to go through all this, it still would be worth it," Bliven said. "Great wife, great mother, great friend."

The couple met when Bliven was killing time in his car in the parking lot of Sandy's -- now the Hardee's at 30th and Broadway -- drinking a soda and eating french fries. An acquaintance asked if Bliven could give her friend -- who he didn't know -- a ride home.

"Before I could say yes or no or anything, she opens the door and shoves this gal in the car," Bliven chuckled. "I asked if she wanted to ride through town. We had a really nice talk, and then I dropped her off at her house."

Bliven couldn't stop thinking about the girl. Soon after, he asked her out on a proper date, and they have been together for the more than 50 years.

Their first date was in 1966. With the Vietnam War in full swing, and knowing he would soon be drafted, Bliven enlisted in the Air Force. Six months later, he came home on leave to marry Jennifer.

"When I went to England (on deployment), I was able to bring her with me," he said. "We've only ever been apart for three months. Even in the service, we were together."

After settling into civilian life, both found jobs at Motorola. They ran Quincy Rug Works after buying the business from a friend in 1990.

Through it all, they were together.

"When I was working on cars, she was right there handing me wrenches," he said. "Everything. No matter what I did, she was always there to support me."

Early on in their marriage, neither knew Jennifer was carrying the gene for Huntington's disease. Symptoms generally appear between ages 35 and 40, and people with the disease tend to not live much longer than 10 to 15 years after the diagnosis. Jennifer has been having symptoms for 28 years.

"I don't know whether you call it luck, fate or whatever," Bliven said. "A combination of both."

The couple also didn't know that their children had a 50 percent chance of getting it, as Huntington's is a genetic disorder. Jennifer's mother died of the disease, but she didn't begin to show symptoms until after the couple were married and had children.

"Our children had a 50/50 chance of getting my genes or hers," he said. "Unfortunately, they got hers."

Although they cannot play any longer, Bliven has fond memories of tennis matches and hours spent bowling with his children. He lights up while telling of the time Michael, his youngest son, bowled a 300 during the city tournament.

"They shared my love for tennis. Both boys played varsity tennis, and Richie played in college," he said. "They're good kids."

Their oldest son, Rich Jr., has the disease, but Bliven is able to care for him at home. Michael has had Huntington's symptoms for the last eight years and lives at Good Samaritan Home, where Jennifer also came to reside after a 10-year stay at the Barry Community Care Center in Barry, Ill.

Eight years ago, Bliven told The Herald-Whig the story of how he found himself living and working in the Barry Community Care Center and caring for his sick wife -- in her late 40s, Jennifer was too young for Good Samaritan Home at the time. Neither of his sons had begun to show symptoms yet.

"One night their generator went out on them. I went out, fixed it and got it running again," he said. "Another time they had a big water leak, and I fixed that for them."

The administrator offered him a job at the nursing home after his second favor. A provision of his contract furnished a room for him to share with his ailing wife.

"For my situation, it was the best of both worlds," he said. "When I needed to be with her, I was able to stay with her, to sleep with her, to be with her."

Finding a job at his wife's nursing home and other unlikely coincidences have helped strengthen Bliven when he feels low. When his parents moved to Florida, they sold him two small adjacent homes they had been renting out prior. Having already had the homes for years, the couple moved back to Quincy when their sons began to show symptoms and Jennifer went to Good Samaritan Home.

"What are the chances that, if your wife got sick, you could stay with her and have a job right there? What is the possibility that you're going to have two houses next to each other where you can keep your disabled sons and be right there to take care of them?" he asked. "I think I've been pretty well taken care of."

Bliven generally spends up to eight hours a day at Good Samaritan Home with Jennifer and Michael, coming home during the day to care for Rich Jr.

"I go in in the morning and feed Jennifer breakfast," he said. "I stay with her for a couple hours, and then I go home. I come back at supper time, feed her and stay with her until she falls asleep. It's tough, but you do what you need to do to take care of your family."

Last November, Bliven sold Quincy Rug Works. He also had open heart surgery -- he half-jokingly credits years of stress and intermittent bouts of depression with causing it -- around the same time and is still recovering.

"I'd like to say that my unyielding faith in God has brought me through this, but there are some things you go through that you wonder why they're happening," he said while considering how he has managed to hold himself together. "Other than praying every night, I can't do anything about it.

"I always go back to thinking of all the things there are in life. Life itself -- flowers, trees, birds -- that's not an accident. I always go back to my faith."

Each Monday, Staff Writer Matt Dutton will bring you a story detailing the life of a local resident.