Holidays come and go, but Joe Podleyon will never forget New Year’s Day of 1998, when he was just 18 years old. Driving to work on treacherous roads, icy from the night before, he lost control and slid sideways into the path of an oncoming truck. The impact hurled him headfirst into the back windshield. “I remember feeling a sharp stinging over my whole body,” he said. Moments later, he realized he couldn’t use his legs, so he used his arms to pull himself into the front seat.
He was flown to a Pittsburgh trauma center, where he repeatedly asked emergency department staff to check his back for glass because of the pain. His whole body began to shake uncontrollably and he thought he was dying, but a nurse assured him he wasn’t. His memory is sketchy after that point, with just snippets of going to and from imaging, then surgery.
Doctors told Podleyon that he’d suffered compressed vertebrae in his back, which exploded, sending pieces into his spine. They also predicted he’d never regain use of his legs. “I was very stubborn, so I never once believed that,” he said.
A few days after his operation, he started moving his toes, which he knew was a positive sign. Podleyon was transferred to an in-patient rehabilitation center to begin physical therapy, and even though the staff and facility were excellent, he was homesick. “I would dream I was home in the middle of the night, only to wake up in my hospital room still.” Just over a month after he was admitted, he walked out of there without assistance.
Looking back, Podleyon said the accident was hardest on his mother, Sharon King, who is a patient care tech in GCMC’s emergency department. She stayed with him around the clock while he was in the hospital, then travelled an hour each way to visit during his rehab. “I’d just totaled her new car, which made things even more difficult,” he said.
Today, he’s 38 and married with two children. His injuries don’t impact his life much, except when he doesn’t get enough sleep. He even plays golf, although his swing is a bit unconventional, since his range of motion is limited. “I need to stay conscious of my posture due to the rods in my back, but I haven’t let it stop me from doing whatever I want,” he said.