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Shane Burcaw makes his way on stage during his graduation in May 2014.
 

ABOVE: In addition to his upcoming published works, Shane Burcaw ’14, along with FireRock Productions, a Lehigh Valley video production company, created an Emmy Award-winning video, titled Happiness is Always an Option. This six-minute glimpse into Burcaw’s life features the same fun-loving tone that helped his blog, Laughing At My Nightmare, become a worldwide phenomenon.

 
 

Shane Burcaw ’14 Laughs At His ‘Nightmare’ Through Humor

By Marie Mikols '17

Cameras, sound mics and a small film crew engulfed the young man sitting in the corner of the HUB, eagerly capturing his every word. Nonchalantly, he continued joking with his friends, a broad smile across his face as if unaware of the crew’s presence. His name is Shane Burcaw ’14, and the gathered audience was on hand this April afternoon to celebrate his literary accomplishments — of which there are many. As part of his recorded talk, the English major read an excerpt from his first book, Laughing At My Nightmare, which will be published in October 2014. “For a while I’ve wanted to be a writer,” Shane states, his eyes gleaming with excitement.

The book cover of Shane Burcaw's book, with him in his wheelchair and a shocked look on his face.

ABOVE: Following its October 2014 release date, Shane Burcaw’s book will be available in most bookstores, online or at www.shaneburcawbooks.com. (Image courtest of Shane Burcaw)

Although the title of Shane’s book might seem jarring, it serves as a reminder of his everyday challenges. While Shane is a typical 21-year-old who loves to make others laugh and spend time with family and friends, his life is anything but ordinary. Born with spinal muscular atrophy, Shane has been wheelchair-bound since he was two years old. The disease continues to deteriorate the muscles in his body — even robbing him of the ability to type — and eventually it will end his life. Instead of focusing on those grim realities, Shane embraces a humorous approach, realizing his “story is worth something to people.” This realization came from the blog he started a few years ago.

When asked what inspired him to write, Shane grins as he says, “I got bored one day and thought I had some funny stories to share.” Almost overnight, Shane’s creative outlet became an internet sensation and many people began urging him to write more. Encouraged by the feedback, he continued. The writing process has allowed Shane to express himself in a unique way, telling others, “Don’t look at my wheelchair, look at me,” he explains.

Shane’s blog entries are unapologetically honest, including this personal description of himself from 2011:

“My arms and legs are slightly fatter than a hot dog and slightly skinnier than a fat piece of sausage (I have no idea why I chose that comparison… yes I do, I’m hungry). Also, my elbows and wrists are extremely atrophied; they look exactly like Tyrannosaurus Rex arms when I hold them against my chest. I am a few inches shy of 5 feet, and when I sit in my chair, it seems like I am even shorter, not midget short, just super short. Also, my head is normal human size, which looks ridiculously funny/creepy sitting on top of my ****ed up, tiny body. Imagine me as a bobblehead doll … in a wheelchair. I don’t even blame people for staring; if I were them, I would probably stare at me, too.”

Over time, Shane has realized his “wheelchair doesn’t define” him, and his sense of humor enabled the young man to connect with others. His writing style is very matter of fact, and he acknowledged it can drip with sarcasm.

“Shane has always been a prolific writer, which I think can be attributed to his distinct voice,” explains John Jesse McHugh ’14, one of Shane’s close friends. “His unique perspective on the world, along with his sense of humor and wit, create a tone that is so undeniably human, and simply hilarious, that it captivates you instantly.”

Shane and his family members gather in front of PPHAC post graduation. President Grigsby leans down to takl with Shane Burcaw during graduation.

ABOVE: Over the years, the Burcaw family has been a constant presence on Moravian’s campus, including Shane’s father, Jon Burcaw ’83 (left), and grandfather, Bob Burcaw ’51 (second from left), professor emeritus of English. Also pictured is Shane’s brother, Andrew Burcaw.

ABOVE: Shane Burcaw '14 is congratulated by President Bryon L. Grigsby '90 during the May 2014 commencement ceremony. (Photos by John Kish IV)

As Shane’s blog became more popular, reaching more than 500,000 followers, his readers started asking for advice. While flattered, he points out, “I don’t have the whole world figured out yet.” Shane hopes his writings help others discover the humor in their own lives, suggesting perspectives that helped him overcome his challenges. He says, “It’s different for everyone though,” and what worked for him may not work for everyone.

Inspired by his supporters, Shane launched his own nonprofit organization for spinal muscular atrophy with his cousin, Sarah Burcaw ’13. The cousins named the organization after Shane’s blog, Laughing At My Nightmare, Inc. To date, the nonprofit has raised thousands of dollars for muscular dystrophy research. After graduation, Shane plans to continue to promote the organization, including speaking tours to share his message and initiatives.

Through an independent study program, Shane began writing his book, which highlights his life and disease, while at Moravian. He worked with Joyce Hinnefeld, chair of the English Department, and the two conducted many long hours of editing and revising before completing a final draft.

“Working with Shane has been a joy for me for many reasons,” says Hinnefeld. “He writes well, but he also accepts editing and revision suggestions with grace, and with the seriousness of a true writer. That has made my job as his teacher — and also, at times, his editor — such a pleasure.

“Shane brings a sense of urgency to his writing,” she adds. “He has boundless energy for writing, and he has so much that he wants to say.”

While he has lots to share, Shane explained during his April talk that it’s important that his message isn’t misinterpreted. He might poke fun at his own challenges, but it’s not to undervalue someone else’s.

“I’m not trying to say, ‘Look at me, so be happy with your life,’” Burcaw explains. “That is not at all the perspective I am trying to give people. Everyone has problems and your problems are your problems. There is no comparing them.

“I’m just saying, ‘This is my life, and this is howI handle it.’”

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