Triumph of the Human Spirit recipient overcomes challenges with a fighting spirit

John Esposito Jr. at Kessler Institute's Triumph of the Human Spirit Awards Gala.

John Esposito, Jr., a road worker and Muay Thai fighter, was struck by a vehicle while on the job in December of 2021.

One leg was severed on impact; the other was damaged beyond repair and surgically removed. Further complicating matters, he went into cardiac arrest and was resuscitated on the med-flight to the hospital. He spent the next three weeks in intensive care. Due to numerous skin grafts, his DNA includes both cow and shark; his legs are now titanium; his knees, computerized. But according to the specialists who’ve worked with him over the last two years, and the fighters he’s trained with for over a decade, John is all heart.

In fact, in 2023, John was honored with Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation’s Triumph of the Human Spirit Award for his good attitude, determination and remarkable progress. “Despite going through his accident and all of the hardships that came along with it, he persevered, continued to stay optimistic and was always positive, despite any setback,” said Tori Roth, occupational therapist at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation (KIR) – West Orange, who worked with him during his initial stay and nominated him for the award. “He always had that ‘go-getter’ energy and gave 110%,” she said. “John was able to connect with other patients in similar situations by providing emotional support and acting as a mentor.”

Photo of John Esposito walking with prosthetics at Kessler Rehabilitation Center in 2024. Of course, none of it has been easy. Since the accident, John’s had a total of seven surgeries. He has had to relearn how to physically navigate the world at the age of 31. He also has to bear the memory of a traumatic accident and the reality that his life was changed in an instant. He was taught skills to address the physical, psychological and emotional challenges of limb loss at KIR – West Orange. Here, John learned how to do everyday tasks safely, learned to use a wheelchair and strengthened his upper body so that he could transfer to and from his chair and worked his hips and core in preparation for prosthetics.

Learn about John’s pre-prosthetic and prosthetic training at KIR – West Orange.

“John is a matter-of-fact kind of guy,” said Heather Sleece Monaco, his physical therapist at Kessler Rehabilitation Center. “He handled his accident and recovery with a lot of grace and a very practical outlook. He never dwelled much on his loss, but rather he focused on how he was going to proceed with his life and live it to the fullest.”

Learning to walk with full-length prosthetic legs with microprocessor knees was a challenge. “There is a computer in the back of the knee and it basically registers the weight, distribution of weight pressure, and that is how it knows to unlock and to lock out,” explained John.

It’s a tricky maneuver to get the hang of. At first, John relied on crutches to help with stability and endurance, but over time he’s gotten good at walking without crutches and can go up steps, curbs and step over items. He’s particularly proud of his ability to navigate steps. “With amputations above each knee on both legs, it is rare that people can do that,” said John.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, it takes more energy to walk with prosthetics. Even for someone athletic like John, establishing and maintaining the endurance and cardiovascular fitness is tough.

Not only has he learned to walk with his prosthetics independently, John returned to the gym to train and support fellow fighters just six months after the accident. On any given Saturday, you might find him ringside or sparring with a partner. He has a group of supportive people who work with him to develop training techniques that are safe and challenging. Although Muay Thai, which includes both kicking and knee strikes, isn’t an option, boxing is a new challenge that John has embraced.

Watch an interview with John at his gym to see how training motivates him.

But there have been a few major setbacks. Since 2023, John’s had three additional revision surgeries on his residual limbs. One was right before the Triumph of the Human Spirit Gala in July 2023. “I couldn’t wear my prosthetics to the award ceremony, so I used the wheelchair,” he said, laughing at the irony of the situation. “Here I was being awarded for my progress with using my prosthetics and I couldn’t even wear them.”

The other two procedures were more recent, and John has been unable to walk for the last seven months while he heals. Each procedure is a little like starting all over again.

He is back at his local Kessler Rehabilitation Center for outpatient physical therapy to rebuild his strength. “Our goals this time around were to him back up to speed: walking without any assistive devices, walking over various terrain, stair negotiation and general endurance and balance work,” said Heather.

This means boxing is on hold. Temporarily, of course.

Even with setbacks, John is still moving forward. He is now living independently and can drive a car using hand controls. Whether it be taking the stairs reciprocally or walking up and down a steep hill at Kessler, “John is never afraid to attempt a new skill,” said Heather.

If there is one piece of advice that could be instilled on anyone in a similar situation, it is to constantly push yourself.

“You have to take risks,” said John. “That’s how you really get to learn what you are capable of and what you are not—and you are really going to have to push yourself to see what those limits are.”