Joseph ‘Joe’ Merola, a 60-year-old forklift operator, was always busy with work, hobbies and family time. But his hobbies were put on hold when his health challenges, including diabetes, back pain and Charcot foot (weakened bones, joints and tissues of the foot caused by a severe complication of diabetes), worsened. When a series of left-leg infections and ulcers did not improve, Joe made a life-changing decision to undergo a below-knee amputation to alleviate the complications.
The surgery took place at Hackettstown Hospital, after which Joe and his wife chose Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation – Chester to continue his recovery. “My wife knew me about [Kessler] and my surgeon told me about it and I was praying that I could get in,” he said. Fortunately, he did.
Upon admission to Kessler, his physician-led team of rehabilitation nurses, physical and occupational therapists, and other amputee specialists tailored a treatment plan to help Joe work toward his goals of returning to work and regaining normalcy in his life.
Joe's first impressions of Kessler were overwhelmingly positive. The attentive and polite staff, along with the supportive atmosphere, made a significant impact. He said his rehabilitation team approached him with respect for his dignity and privacy, which he greatly appreciated.
“The people were so polite and attentive,” Joe said. He faced challenges in transferring and completing daily activities on his own, such as getting up to go to the bathroom. He knew that with the help of his therapy team, independence was not far away. While many weeks away, Joe focused on getting an artificial leg. He hoped to then participate in Kessler's program to learn how to walk with the prosthesis.
At the start, his nurses taught Joe how to wrap and care for his wounds, and he participated in mirror therapy to cope with phantom pain and sensation – the perception of pain or discomfort in a limb that is no longer there. His physical therapists focused on improving his strength and mobility through wheelchair ambulation training over various surfaces and walking with a walker.
Similarly, in occupational therapy, he focused on improving his upper body and core strength, endurance and functional transfers. He participated in prone positioning – lying face down – and side-lying exercises to promote hip mobility and learned how to use adaptive equipment including a reacher and long-handed mirror to complete daily tasks.
He admits he enjoyed all the exercises – except stretching. “I had a spine reconstruction, I have a bad back, so it did hurt, but it was a good hurt,” he added.
With grit and determination, Joe progressed to moving and transferring independently in his wheelchair, walking 50 feet with the aid of a walker and performing everyday tasks such as dressing, bathing and getting in and out of bed on his own.
Throughout his rehabilitation journey, Joe's wife played a vital role in his recovery. She supported and encouraged him, ensuring that he continued exercising at home regularly. She actively participated in Kessler’s family therapy day, ensuring that she was well-prepared to support Joe during his transition back home. “My wife is phenomenal, she’s behind me 100%.”
Joe expressed immense gratitude to the entire staff at Kessler for his progress. The positive atmosphere, dedication and constant support from everyone, including the cleaning and kitchen staff, left a lasting impression on him. “I’ve been in the hospital more times than you could imagine, and I've never had a stay like I had at Kessler. It was awesome.”
Upon discharge, Joe felt prepared and confident. “By the time I got to my house, everything was setup and ready for me. It was amazing,” he said.
As Joe continued his journey to independence, he offered advice and words of wisdom for others facing similar challenges. “Keep your chin up and plow ahead, as hard as you can. The harder you work the better off you’re going to be.”