Greg Alessi is one of my best friends growing up. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing him since 6th grade when we began playing ice hockey together. Greg is the type of person that is always in great spirits. The one quality I’ve always admired about Greg is no matter what situation he’s in, I have never once heard him complain about anything. Even when he had every reason to complain, give up, stop trying, he carried on and made his life beautiful again. On December 21st 2009, his life would change forever. That mentality of never complaining, never giving up and making the best out of every situation in life has made me extremely grateful and proud to call Greg a very good friend.
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Never Complaining with Greg Alessi
Please welcome, Greg Alessi. Greg, what’s up man? How are we doing?
I’m doing great. How are you?
Doing phenomenal. Greg, where are you from?
I grew up in Tinton Falls, New Jersey. I’m currently in Asbury Park though. I’m by the beach.
Did you love growing up in Tinton Falls or what?
I loved it. It was great.
You got a solid crew over there.
What’s nice about it is I stay in the area so I still have a good core group of friends like yourself and all of our friends that we grew up with, from ice hockey to high school, and all of my Tinton Falls guys as well.
When did you start playing ice hockey, Greg? How did you get into it?
Probably about the same time you did. I started skating when I was four or five years old. My parents just threw me out to the wolves and sent me out there. I didn’t actually start playing actual ice hockey until I was about six or seven. I think I met you probably about that time, eight years old, nine years old.
Yeah, the Eagles. Is it safe to say that I’ve taught you everything you know about ice hockey?
You could say that. You definitely taught me a few things.
Greg, where did you go to high school?
I went to high school at Red Bank Catholic with you.
You’ve played some pretty high level hockey at a young age. You played with a lot of kids that are in the NHL now, on that Rockets team, right?
Yeah, I did. John Carlson on the Capitals in the Olympic team, he’s a great guy. Me and you, we both played at pretty high levels.
You were always better than everybody else at a young age because you were the biggest kid out there when we were young.
I was. I stopped growing at 5’7″ when I was thirteen years old.
Greg was the tallest kid in Peewees and just hasn’t grown since. Greg, what did you want to do after high school?
After high school, I wanted to either go into finance, that’s what I started to study in college, is finance, but I also wanted to be a police officer as well.
Where did you want to go to college?
I wanted to go to college either in Towson, Maryland, either in Florida or Arizona. It was either go somewhere where a lot of my friends are going or it was go to warm weather.
What did you end up choosing?
I chose warm weather all the way.
You had quite the time out there. I remember getting some voicemails late into the night.
With the time difference, it wasn’t that late.
I just remember seeing pictures of everything out there. It looked like an awesome time out in Arizona.
It was definitely the time of my life. Between the weather, the school, the girls obviously, everything was great. Everything was awesome.
I remember that one Thanksgiving you spent out in Laguna Beach, that must have been awesome, that area.
Yeah, I had a good support system out there being that I didn’t know anybody on the West Coast at the time. The friends that I did meet at the short time in college, they took me in like I was one of their own. I went to family gatherings, things like that. I was definitely lucky.
I have never personally heard this story before, never really asked you about the exact details and really have no idea what you went through. I don’t think many people do because you’ve never really complained about it. It’s just amazing what you’ve been through and what you’ve been able to come out of and all the adversities you faced. What was going on, on December 21st 2009? Walk us through the whole day. Did you wake up and did you feel any different? Was it just a regular day?
I don’t know if I’ve ever told anyone this, maybe my parents and the person I was with. Obviously, December 21st is right around Christmas time. I was on my college winter break at the time from Arizona State. A good friend of ours, a girl you know, Katie, picked me up from the airport just a day or two before, maybe December 19th, December 18th, something like that.
You got home from Arizona State, Katie picked you up and then you guys were on your way?
Yeah, we’re on our way. She was driving me home. We saw a really bad car accident on a highway, on our way home from the airport. She was driving so she obviously had her eyes on the road. I turned and looked and I saw a dead person. About two days before this happened to me, I saw someone lying next to their car, there was police and everything. They must just have got there. Obviously, at that point, I didn’t know what was going to happen to me just a few days later.
Did anything run through your head?
It was definitely crazy. You don’t see that every day. I’ve never seen a dead person. It was definitely crazy, but no, I didn’t think anything of it.
I know when you talk to some people that have had a traumatic incident happen, like when they wake up that day, something feels off or something just doesn’t quite feel right. Did you experience that all or was it just another day?
Just another day for me. We were going to New York. I was with my father.
Going to the city or Upstate?
We were going Upstate to his family’s house actually.
What time was it when you guys hopped in the car?
All this is hazy to me, timetables, all that. But I would say late morning, early noon.
You guys are driving up the turnpike and what happened next?
We’re driving up the turnpike. I’m in the passenger seat actually. My father was driving. My father is a good driver.
What kind of car were you guys in?
We were in a Jeep Grand Cherokee. We were driving up the turnpike and just a normal day. It might have snowed the night before or something like that.
It might have been icy or something, right?
Yeah, something like that could have been going on. We’re driving and just going in normal speed. My father’s from New York, he likes driving on the trucks side. When you’re on the turnpike, you could go trucks or you could go cars. My dad likes to drive in the trucks side because he thinks they’re professional drivers. They know what they’re doing, this and that. That puts us on that side. My whole life came before me. All of a sudden, I looked up and there it was. It was one of those big eighteen-wheelers just going sideways right in front of us.
Where are you in relation to the eighteen-wheeler? Is it a little bit in front of you or right next to you?
It was definitely ahead of us, something like that. It happened so fast. Obviously, I’m not the driver so it wasn’t my duty to really keep my eyes completely in front of me at all times. I did see it and I yelled a big, “Oh shit.” That’s the last thing that I remember before everything happened, was, “Oh shit.”
That happens and when did you black back in?
I don’t know how long after, but it wasn’t that long after because I was still in the car.
You blacked back in in the car, after the accident?
Yeah, I woke up in the car. I felt pain, but I didn’t feel that bad a pain. I was in shock, I guess. I looked over at my dad. The first thing I did was asked my dad if he was okay. My dad’s an older guy. He’s been through some health problems of his own. He said, “I’m fine. What about you?” I lifted all my limbs up, I touched some areas. That’s when I realized, my right arm was mush. I could only lift up my shoulder. When I went to lift up my whole arm, only my shoulder went up. I didn’t feel anything else. I looked down and it was a disaster. I don’t want to get too gory on this, but there’s blood, there’s pieces everywhere.
What’s going through your head at that point?
I thought I was going to die. There was a lot of blood. I’ve never been in a situation like that. It was really scary. At the time, besides my arm being almost cut off, I’m looking up, I’m underneath a tractor-trailer at this time. We were trapped underneath it. I don’t know if there’s gas leaking, I don’t know what’s going on.
You’re pinned under the eighteen-wheeler right now?
We were pinned underneath there. It was my side that took the brute force of the accident. Luckily, my dad was okay. I was stuck underneath. I was cold. I just remember yelling how cold I was. You see movies, things like that. It sounds corny now, but before everyone dies in a movie, they get really cold. I was like, “Shit, I can’t go now. Come on.” A lot of things raced through my head. Obviously, people I didn’t get to say bye to, my mom, my sisters, loved ones, friends, family, all that crosses your mind, but at the same time, you’re in such a panic because of how much pain there was.
At this point, are you just waiting for someone to get you out of the car? Can you get out of the car or is it too pinned down?
The car was pinned down exactly where I was. My dad could’ve squeezed out. We sat there I believe for a pretty good amount of time. The first person who actually came to help was a nurse. She wasn’t working at the time. She was driving to work or something. She saw it. Cars, when they see an accident, they think everything is taken care of, especially if they didn’t see the actual incident happen. They think, “Everything’s fine.” A lot of cars in the New York City area, they just want to get to where they’re going. They don’t care about anybody else. Cars are just going around at this point. This nice woman, I have her saved on my phone as Allison Lifesaver. She told me she saw two heads in the car and she ran out and she went through the trunk of the car. She gave me a neck brace and a blanket because I was so cold, my body temperature must’ve been gone. The first thing I did was, with how bad my arm injury was, I could tell, I was wearing an argyle vest.
What is that?
It’s a very strong and fiber material. I wrapped my arm in that to put some pressure on it. All I know is movies, I’m not a doctor. I’m not doctor like you over here. All I know is movies and you see people with injuries and they just wrap things up, they put pressure on it. That’s all I was doing at that point until we waited for some more serious medical staff to come. I waited, I was in and out. I couldn’t tell you the timetable. There was screaming, I was scared.
When they took you out, what did they do with you?
When I got taken out, I got taken out through either the driver side or the back door on the driver side. My seat actually got disconnected from the actual car. My front seat was sitting on the back seat, if that makes sense at all. It’s hard to picture. My arm was stabilized. The ambulance people came in and stabilized my arm so that they can move my whole body without my arm flailing around. At this time, you hear all of them. They’re talking on radios and stuff. They’re talking to each other. Obviously, the way they talk to each other, you could tell the severity of the situation even if you’re not a medical professional. You hear things like compound fractures, get this, get that, talking about different medications, morphine, things like that.
Did they have to get you the Jaws of Life to get you out of the car? Did they open up the car like that?
No, luckily not. They got me out without that even though the car was totaled anyway.
How did they get you to the trauma center? Did they airlift you or did they drive you there in the ambulance?
I was put in through an ambulance. That’s where my memory of that day gets super foggy because once I got in the ambulance, they started taking scissors to all my clothes, my shoes. I was wearing my favorite shoes, they cut my shoes up, they cut my jeans off, they cut my shirt off, they cut everything off and they start giving you pain medication and different medications to stabilize you, make you feel more comfortable so that they could do their jobs in a more efficient manner, I guess. That’s when it started getting hazy on me because of all the medication I was on.
I did get to the hospital and I was rushed into a surgery. My dad was also brought to the hospital as well. This is actually a story that makes me cry sometimes. Right before I went into the operating room, this is the last thing I remember before I was in a stabilized condition, they put me next to my dad in the stretchers. The doctors don’t know the extent of my injuries or my dad’s injuries. Our necks are completely stabilized so I could only look up at the ceiling at this time. My dad could only look at the ceiling. They’re like, “Your father’s right next to you. You’re about to go into surgery. If there’s anything you guys want to say to each other, say it now.” Still at this point, with the severity of what happened and with the drugs amount at this point, I don’t know what’s going to happen, I still might die. I have no idea. The doctor might have told me, “You’re going to be okay. Just say something to your dad.” With the drugs, I don’t know what they said to me. With my dad, before I went in there, I told him, “I remember what happened. I know it wasn’t your fault. I love you. Whatever happens, we’ll talk about it after.” He said, “Greg, I love you too.” They put us in separate rooms. I went right into surgery.
Just thinking about that conversation, that’s such a you and your dad conversation, straight to the point, not overly emotional about it. Just like, “Hey, I love you. See you afterwards.” They bring you into surgery, your first surgery out of many. What happened after that?
After the first surgery, they knew my arm was hurt so they looked into that, but they did full body X-rays because at this point they don’t know what else is wrong. I had some head injuries too. I had glass in my face. When I woke up from the surgery, I had doctors in the room, I had my parents there.
You had your seatbelt on, right?
That’s why I moved with the seat. When I got out of surgery, I came to from the anesthesia and all that good stuff, I had doctors there, my parents were there. They had a long conversation with me. They told me, “You’re not paralyzed. You have no really bad head injuries as far as fractured skulls, fractured bones in anywhere besides your right arm,” which is a blessing after what happened. It’s absolutely amazing that nothing else was hurt given the situation. That’s when they started talking about my arm. They used some fancy words, but I think these doctors had good bedside manners. They’re trauma doctors. They’ve dealt with some of the most serious situations. I’m very lucky I was put in their hands.
The biggest conversation we had after that first surgery was they weren’t sure if they were going to cut my arm off or not. I was looking at an arm amputation. They told me in the first surgery, what they really did with arm was they stabilized the bones. My elbow was shattered into thousands of pieces. I could be a doctor now by the way, after all these surgeries, I know all these terms. All the bones got disconnected from each other. It was pretty bad. They pretty much just cleaned out the arm. One of the things they told me was, “Whatever you wrapped your arm in,” that sweater I was talking about, all the fibers on my sweater got into my arm. It took them hours to pick these sweater fibers out of my arm. It wasn’t a problem long term, but it made their job quite tedious. They had to go in there, really clean it out. There was a lot of nerve damage, bone damage, there was muscle damage. They had to reevaluate this situation between each surgery, before they could really decide whether they were going to amputate or not, which obviously puts you in a pretty shitty situation. You don’t even know. Here I am, I’m in so much pain, I’m on all these drugs as well. My emotions were flying high.
Were they saying to you like, “Greg, we’re going to amputate the arm,” or they’re going to do the best to save it?
It’s pretty much they’re going to do the best to save it, but they got to tell me that they might amputate it from a legality standpoint. They told me it’s very possible. I was upset. I started yelling, I started screaming. I threatened the doctor. I went through a couple more surgeries in the next day or so. They stabilized all the bones, the muscles. Four days after the accident, that’s when I found out I was going to keep my arm. It was a good four days of me thinking, going to bed every night not knowing if I was going to have an arm or not. Looking back on it now, even if I did lose my arm, I still think I’d be in the same position I am today. In those four or five days, that was one of the toughest times in my life, to really come to terms with possibly living the rest of my life with one arm. Other people look at you as a freak, as a whatever. Also the functionality standpoint of living your everyday life with one arm, it was very hard to come to terms with that. Luckily, I didn’t have to.
Do you even understand the magnitude of the situation yet? Four days later, because you’re on all these drugs, you’re in all this pain, what’s your mental state at this point?
I was pretty down on myself. I was depressed. I’m in so much pain at this point, I had one of those buttons in the hospital that they just pump pain medicine into you. I was on cloud nine, in a completely different land most of the time. No, I didn’t really sit back and assess the situation and be like, “A year from now, I’ll be here. Two years from now, I’ll be here. Best case scenario, I’ll be here in five years.” I never really had the mental fortitude at the time to really put it all together.
Even when there were days that you felt you were all right, then they would bring you in for another emergency surgery, right?
I remember, I think it was me, Matt Szajdecki, Jared Tompson and Kristi, we went to go see you and we were sitting in the hospital. It was like a good day to come. We’re ready to see you. The doctor or someone comes out there, “Greg just got another emergency surgery. You guys got to leave.” We’re like, “What?” We didn’t understand. I don’t know if anybody understood the magnitude of the situation until we actually saw you.
There were a lot of surgeries. I was in the hospital for about three weeks, my initial stay. I want to say there were good nine surgeries in three weeks. It could’ve been more than that. Again, it was all a haze those three weeks.
Not only were you fighting the arm surgeries, but the infections.
At this point, I didn’t have any infections yet, luckily. Otherwise, if I had infection this early on, I think they would’ve just said, “Let’s just cut it off.” The other problems I was dealing with was in the first week in the hospital, I was in front seat, the windshield shattered on us. For about two or three weeks, I was picking shards of glass out of my face, out of my forehead, my scalp, my neck. There were just small tiny pieces of glass. I think over time, when stuff goes into your skin, it comes out, it forces itself out. Over time, I’m just finding glass on my head, things like that.
Still, at this point, not to get ahead, but my whole mindset on the whole thing is always: No matter what, somebody next to you or somebody down the street always has it worse. Everyone in the world has problems. Somebody’s going to have it worse than others. In most cases, somebody does have it worse than you. The guy next to me in the trauma center, I had to share a room with somebody. My mom was talking to the kid’s mother in the waiting room. They’re both pretty upset. My mom is a pretty emotional lady. She was talking to this lady. I was nineteen at the time. This guy was probably about 28. His mother was there. This guy was on his 25th surgery. He was there for three months. He was in full body cast.
Do you know what happened to him?
He was in a motorcycle accident. I don’t know the specifics, but he was in a pretty bad motorcycle accident. Just right in that moment, that started my whole thing of, “Somebody always has it worse. Never get too down on yourself.” Literally, somebody always has it worse. In that time period, right in the beginning of this, the guy right next to me was in a full body cast. I can move the rest of my arm, my left arm, my legs, my head. My brain was working.
I don’t know many people that can put themselves in that selfless mindset, “Look at this guy next to me.” Not many people can do that. Thank God you can because that might have saved you.
It’s definitely tough being in the hospital. Also, my support system was awesome too. That helped me through the hospital between, just like you said, you, Jared, Matt and Kristy came. I had dozens of people come and visit me. My family came and visited me from extended to immediate. My dad, even when he was cleared from the hospital, he still slept in my room sometimes. I had friends that I hadn’t seen in years come visit me. My support system was really good. It added a lot of hope to the situation that no matter what happens, at the end of the day, I have good family, good friends.
How long did it take for everything to settle down like, “This is real life now. We’ve got to focus on getting better and rehab and physical therapy,” and all that stuff?
It was about two to three weeks in the hospital with a lot of surgeries. They told me that the biggest surgery, the biggest tell-all of my future of my right arm, hand and elbow and the whole nine yards, was a nerve surgery that I had. They took the nerves out of my leg and put them into my arm. It’s called a nerve graft. The day after the surgery, it’s like, “We don’t know if it’s going to work. It might, it might not. You’ve got to give it two years to see if it’s going to work.” If it does work, it’s going to be gradual. It’s not one day. I was told that, but still at this time, I hadn’t seen what my arm looked like.
It’s been three weeks and you haven’t seen what your arm looked like yet?
I haven’t seen what it looked like because what they did was, my arm was wide open so that instead of keep doing incisions for surgery, they would just keep it open and keep like a vacuum type system in there to keep it clean. Basically, the last surgery in the hospital was a skin graft where they took skin off my leg to close up that area. It was a pretty big wound. Still at this point, after they put skin from my leg, I still hadn’t seen it. I had to go for a follow-up maybe two weeks after or a week or two after. That’s when the surgeon takes off all the dressing, the wound care stuff.
Were you looking intently at it or were you looking away and just waiting for it to be all done? What was your first reaction looking at your arm for the first time?
I didn’t know what it was going to look like. I never asked the doctor what it looked like. To be honest, I thought it was going to be like a normal arm, just without it working I guess. He took it off and I saw it. It looked like a big burn. Imagine your entire arm being burned. I’ve lost a lot of muscle mass. It looks like a chicken wing actually. I was terrified at this point. It was scary looking to see that.
I was always a righty. I did everything with my right hand. That was another thing I had to look forward to was having to do everything lefty. Anyway, I saw it. I was pretty scared, I was pretty mortified. At that moment, I thought in my head, “Oh my God, if this is what I think it looks like, how’s someone else going to be able to look at me? How are my friends going to be able to look at this? How’s my family going to be able to look at me? How many girlfriends can be able to deal with how this looks?” Things like that immediately start running through my mind. He talked to me about the nerve repair and all that. Even at this point, I had a little bit of progress actually. It was actually promising as far as the functionality.
What was the progress that you noticed?
I went from not being able to move a finger, I’m talking like a dead limp hand, my wrist and my fingers, I couldn’t move one of them. All of a sudden, I could kind of move one. I couldn’t make a fist, nothing like that. I could just kind of move one. It’s like where someone who thinks they’re paralyzed and they could wiggle their toes.
Were the doctors or anything telling you, “Greg, there’s a chance you might not ever be able to use this arm ever again”?
This surgery, it’s possible it doesn’t work. I didn’t find out until down the road actually, when my hand made significant progress, that the same surgeon, he did the same exact surgery two weeks later to somebody. It was just a complete loss. He said mine was a miracle surgery. Throughout the years, he takes videos of me. He’s a world-renowned surgeon. He plays videos of my hand, my arm, at conferences in Switzerland, Germany, other places like that. I was very lucky not only not dying that day and not hitting my head too hard, getting brain damage, but I was put into the hands of an absolute miracle worker. That was amazing.
Did you know this doctor’s name?
His name is Dr. John Cappa. He practices out of NYU now. He’s a brilliant guy. It was him and another doctor. He was the doctor that worked everything; the nerve-wise and aftermath. My original doctor was another savior, this guy Dr. Mark Riley, who I haven’t seen in a while. He’s another world-renowned guy because Dr. Cappa says he sees him in Switzerland and Germany all the time. He was amazing as well.
It sounds about like, “I got the dressing off. I know what my arm looks like.” What’s next for you?
The next thing is to start rehabbing, not only just rehabbing, but wound care as well. You don’t want to get infections, things like that. I ended up getting an infection way down the road, but this time I didn’t know the severity of what infections could really do to you. I’ve scraped my knee as a little kid, it’s got infected. You put Neosporin and you’re fine. I don’t really understand the severity of these infections, but it was a very important part of the wound care at the time as well as rehabbing. At this time, my psyche wasn’t even an issue. It was an issue, but wasn’t something that was being addressed. I was super depressed, I was down on myself.
We had to find a hand therapist that was close to my house because when this happened, I was driving to New York. These surgeons were a good 45 minutes, an hour from me. All the hand therapists they know were up by them, an hour away. I was trying to find a hand therapist by us. This is actually a funny story looking back. I went to a hand therapist. It was more of a mom-and-pop hand therapy place that they probably deal with older people with arthritis and somebody who just spends too much typing on the computer all day. I called him first and asked him if he could do wound care and some hand therapy. I told him nerve damage, muscle damage. I sent him the papers from the doctor. He goes, “Yeah, no problem.” I went in there.
At this time, we weren’t exactly starting too much therapy for the movement of the hand because like the doctor said, with the nerves, you got to let the time do the work. At the same time, you don’t want to tighten up too much. It’s more of stretching and things like that. A lot of it was based on wound care. The doctor removed the dressing and he looked at it. It was still a fresh skin graft. It’s pretty much a skin from my leg sitting on my arm in a pie formation. He looked at it and he goes, “I need a cigarette after this.” I turned to my dad and I said, “Dad, let’s get the fuck out of here.” He was able to change my dressing and all that, but that was the first and last time we saw him. I had to find another one. After that experience, my mom came with a good idea, “Why don’t we find a trauma center in the area and ask them where they send people?” I ended up going to Jersey Shore Medical, which is by us. It’s one of the best trauma hospitals around here. I found a hand therapist there who’s very qualified, but he ended up being a younger guy, which is in the long run ended up being awesome.
At first, you were like, “How long you’ve been doing this?”
Not really. Just like the original doctors, his bedside manner, he was just the type of guy that put you at ease. Forget about his professional qualifications, he knew how to deal with people as well, which is big. It ended up, he went to Red Bank Catholic as well. He’s a younger guy. He’s probably 34 or 35 at the time. He went to the same high school as me, he played some sports. He was an athletic guy. We had a lot in common basically. Over the years, I was so thankful of it. At the time I didn’t think anything of it, but now looking back being that I was there with a younger guy who’s like me, I was able to talk about college with him. I was able to talk about girls with him. I was able to talk about regular guy stuff with him while I’m dealing with this super traumatic situation in my life. It was like therapy. It was mental therapy as well without even noticing. I was very lucky with him. His name is Jeff Breeden. He was amazing. I tell people that, “While all the surgeons and stuff might’ve saved my arm and everything, he might’ve saved my life.” I’m very thankful for him. I still talk to him to this day. This happened almost nine years ago. I still keep in touch with him. When I went to see him, he had brown hair, now he has gray hair.
You’re getting the hand therapy now. How long has it been at this point?
We’re looking at about a month now. He’s dealing with the wound care at this point, having me stretch my hand. I was in this pain called an external fixator. A lot of people don’t know what it is. You most commonly see them on joint injuries, with shattered joints. A lot of people notice them on heads. If someone breaks their skull, it’s like a metal halo that’s drilled into your head.
Did you ever see that movie Bleed For This?
I don’t know if it’s the same thing, but he broke his neck and he had a metal halo thing. I don’t know if that’s the same thing.
It’s very similar. It was a metal structure that was drilled into my arm, my forearm and my bicep to fixate my elbow into one spot for four months. I couldn’t move my elbow for four months. I had this metal rods drilled into my bones. If I bumped into a door with this thing, that’s some of the worst pain I’ve ever experienced. I’m talking even after being in that car accident, sitting in the car, because I was in shock in that car accident. Bumping into a door or something with this thing was bad. Anyway, I couldn’t move my elbow for a pretty long time. This guy was just helping me with wound care and moving my hand. As time went on, we’re talking four months before my next surgery. In those four months, given where I was, I got significant progress with how my hand was working. I was able to move my wrist a little bit, my fingers, all my fingers worked a little bit. At this time, I can use all my fingers at once.
It was probably a struggle even to lift it up a little bit, but they were moving?
Yeah. The toughest part in those four months and for the next year and a half after that was I would see people, say someone like you who I didn’t see every day, I saw you once every month or once every two months. You would look at them and be like, “That looks great.” But when you look at something day-to-day, you don’t really notice the tiny progress compared to someone who sees it every six months. It was very frustrating not seeing a lot of progress. Jeff kept me working. I got to my next surgery, which was to take off the external fixator. It dropped my elbow down. I had to start using my elbow again. My elbow didn’t work out that well. My elbow was completely shattered. I got some mobility out of the elbow, I could bend it a little bit. I’m not too concerned about that. It’s just an elbow. As long as I could use my hand a little bit, whatever about the elbow. I started rehabbing the elbow and the hand at this point, started getting aggressive with it.
This is actually a pretty interesting part of the story. This hand therapist, the type of people he deals with besides someone like myself, you’re talking stroke patients. I told you at the hospital we were at, there were some gunshot wounds, stroke patients. We’re talking little kids with cognitive disorders, things like that, a whole array of things. This added to the same thing about the gentleman in the bed next to me where everyone else has other problems. I saw some of these stroke patients and they can’t even speak. They can’t talk. You see their loved ones. They’re trying to walk them through this. They don’t even recognize them. They’re just trying to get their hand to work. Here I am, my hand is messed up, but I have another hand. I’ve got two legs I can walk on and my brain works. I could talk to anybody I want. I could still do anything I want at this time, which was comforting. It keeps things in perspective when you see some of the stuff other people are dealing with.
From there, I kept getting surgeries to keep getting better. I got a couple surgeries where they moved muscles around, to move muscles from one part of my arm to put them into my fingers so that the nerves that were re-healing would have some muscle to fire them because I did lose a lot of muscle in the arm. While the nerves are coming back, I still really couldn’t use my hand because I didn’t have the muscle power to do it. They moved a lot of muscles around. That helped a lot.
That’s truly amazing what they did, unbelievable.
The medical field in general is amazing. This was 2009 when it happened. You put me as early as 2001, I don’t know if I’m lucky enough. It’s very amazing. Every time I saw my doctors, I told them that they’re miracle workers, how amazing it is and how lucky I am. I’m still down on myself though. I’m keeping things in perspective, but I’m still pretty depressed with the whole situation.
Was there any point where you’re like, “I’m not doing this anymore. I’m done.”?
No. I think what kept me from that was the support system around me, my family. Those first four months, I was living with my parents and my older sister who was 21 or 22, those are the best years of your life. I’m sitting in my bedroom. As a matter of fact, before I came home from the hospital, my parents and my sister went out and bought me a brand new bed because they knew I was going to be bedridden. They bought me a lazy boy so I could sit and stuff. When I was finally home, sitting in bed, my sister had went out and bought a bell so that I could sit in my bed and ring a bell and she would come bring me stuff. I was just so lucky to have the support system not only mentally, but physically and financially, which a lot of people don’t realize. As a college student, you can’t go on disability. You don’t get a disability check. Financially, I was helped out as well. I can’t imagine somebody else who wasn’t as fortunate as me with that type of support system, how they would feel. Maybe they would go down that road. There was a lot of drugs involved at this point, as far as my access to pain medication and pills. There was a lot of bad avenues that I could have fallen down. Without my support system, I could definitely see someone else going down that road.
It’s interesting too about the psyche and the mental aspect of it. I remember going up in your room and seeing you for the first time. I’m just in shock, just looking at you and just shaking my head. You were the one that was like, “Snap out of it. I’m good.” We just started to watch TV or did whatever we did that day. You were very strong and you seemed like you were good. You put on a game face and you said it was all good. That made me feel better. I don’t know anybody mentally as strong as that. That was just impressive.
My dad. A lot of stuff like that comes from my dad. My dad is one of the best guys out there. He’s been through hell and back. I learned a lot about how to deal with adversity and things like that through my dad.
We’re at the pain pills and all that stuff.
At this point, I’m rehabbing. I found myself at these tables with all these stroke patients, these little kids with brain disorders, things like that, gunshot victims, wild stuff; stuff that I’ve never seen before either. They had me doing things with my hands. I was making beaded necklaces with my hand. I felt like I was at a third grade arts and crafts fair. I felt like a child. It was just frustrating. “Is this really going to help me, making this damn bead necklace?” Doing things like that, I’m playing with wooden blocks and cones. I felt like a little kid, but not the good kind of little kid. That put me back there. That was frustrating. Again, the guy, Jeff, he kept me in somewhat good spirits. I was still making progress, which was good. That definitely kept me involved. I was taking heavy pain medicine at the time, but I needed it.
How was that making you feel?
I felt lifeless, but I really needed it. The pain was really, really bad.
What do you mean you felt lifeless?
When you take pain medicine every single day, there’s no purpose out there. You feel like you’re there, but you’re not. You can’t talk to anybody, you can’t participate. Your body is there but your mind isn’t. It could’ve gone down to a dark place but I really needed the pain medicine, which I think in the long term helped me out with not being a full addict or anything like that. I did take it for quite a while. I realized I was addicted to it when I stopped taking it and I started going through withdrawals.
What were some of the withdrawal stuff?
It was three or four days of going to bed and just waking up in pools of sweat. That was probably a year down the road. That was a year of taking pain medicine every single day, multiple times a day. At the time, I’m still getting surgery. You can’t just come out of a surgery and not take any pain medicine. With the types of surgeries they were doing where they’re moving muscles and nerves and things like that, it’s not something Advil could take care of.
At a year later at this point, how many surgeries would you say you’ve had?
Probably about nine to twelve now. One of the biggest pains, the long term pain that I deal with though, which was way worse back then, was nerve pain. It’s an electrical feeling. It’s like getting pins and needles, but a painful kind.
It doesn’t stop?
It’s very intermittent. It comes and it goes. You can’t plan when it comes, you can’t plan when it goes. That was one of the tougher pains along with obviously all the elbow pain and all that. That was difficult to deal with. I don’t deal with it as much anymore. We’re about a year in now, next December. I got a few muscle surgeries that actually really helped me out. It really helped me be able to close my fist to where I could make my hand somewhat functional. I could use my pointer finger and my thumb, which are the two main factors in using your hand if you really think about it. You could pick things up.
Most people don’t think about that.
The thumb is really important. I can’t use my thumb perfectly still, my whole hand, I can’t use perfectly. Any progress, I was happy about. That kept happening. At the same time, I still had to give two years for the nerve healing to really come along. I got about a year and a half in and I’m still going to therapies three or four days a week. It got to a point where I stopped making progress about a year and a half in. I wasn’t where I wanted to be, which is hard to deal with. I’m talking to the doctors, “There’s not much else we could do.” They did one more muscle surgery, which helped a tiny bit. I got to the point where I plateaued. I had to come to terms with the fact that this is probably how I’m going to have to live my life at this point. That’s when therapy went from healing and progress to more of an occupational therapy, which is learning how to live with your condition. I’m not sure. I’m not an occupational therapist, but I feel like that’s the difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy, is learning how to live with your disability or injury than getting your injury back to where you were before.
Did this just put your psyche down in the gutter again?
A little bit it did. I realized I’m not going to be able to use my hand. It’s not going to be any better from here. At least before that, I was like, “I could get better. I could get better. I could get better.” You could see the light at the end of the tunnel and say, “Hopefully I’ll get there,” and you set goals for yourself. At this point, I realized this is it. The progress I made from where I was on December 21st to two years down the road in itself was amazing. The doctors themselves were amazed with the progress. Given what happened to me, I was very, very lucky. It’s hard to say you’re lucky when you’re in a situation like that, but it was in the past at this point and I consider myself very lucky.
What happens after that? You’re two years into it, you’re not making any progress, you’re doing occupational therapy. What happens now?
I stay in therapy and stuff like that. About two years in, I started going back to college. I hadn’t gotten back to school at this point. I was in therapy four days a week, getting surgeries every couple months. It was hard to stay in school. Not only that, with the pain medicine, it was hard to concentrate on school when you’re on that. I started back at school at a community college. I did a whole year there and I graduated with an Associate’s degree in Criminal Justice. Probably now, three or four years in, I’m still going to occupational therapy here and there just to keep my hand loose. A lot of the problem was because of the nerve damage and the lack of use, a lot of the muscles would tighten up. The muscles that weren’t being used would tighten up. I would get a lot of cramping, a lot of things like that. I wanted to learn some stretching techniques that I could do at home so I didn’t have to go to therapy for the rest of my life. After that, I ended up getting my Bachelor’s degree in National Security at this point from a school up in Jersey City, Jersey City University.
I was able to get my bachelors degree, but the hardest part through that was now, I’m living my life left-handed. I had to learn how to write left-handed. A lot of the teachers were pretty lenient. It was 2013, 2014 at this time. They’re not hitting us with rulers or anything like that. You’re allowed to bring laptops in. I learned how to type with one hand. I eventually learned how to write. I still don’t write great, but I write pretty well. It’s one of those things when you have to do something, it comes a lot easier. Someone like you, if you went to go write with your opposite hand right now, it might not be great. But if you had to do it and you gave yourself a few months to do it, it’s not one of those things that are impossible.
My teachers were very lenient. I got my degree. I thought I was clear of surgeries at this point. I knew at this point that because of how traumatic the injury was, that I was going to deal with problems down the road. I didn’t know what they were going to be, whether they were going to be structural issues, muscle issues, arthritis. If I take a fall, I might break something because of all the metal that’s in there. I think I’m in the clear for the time. I’m back with hanging out with my friends, going out in the weekends, things like that. I’m off the pain medicine at this point. Not completely off, I’m not taking it every day at this point. I still take it today. We’re eight years down the road, I still take it, but it’s not every day and I’m able to live my life now. At that point, I’m back to hanging out with my friends.
I was listening to one of your episodes the other day with Dr. Hall. You were telling him how you got to go to an AA meeting. I’m going out with my friends, having beers with my friends. In my head, my arm still looks funny. I’m still worried about what people might think about it. I’m still dealing with that side of things. At this time, I’ve come to terms with the lack of use and things like that. I’ve learned ways to deal with it; going from showering to tying my shoes, different techniques.
What about driving? What’s going on there? How long did it take you to hop back in a car? Was that traumatic for you?
It didn’t take long to get back into a car. My dad drove me a lot. The reason I couldn’t drive a lot was because of the pain medicine. I didn’t want to get a DUI or anything like that because I was on pain medicine. When I wasn’t on pain medicine, I got in the car. I missed being able to drive. Nobody ever told me I couldn’t drive. Nobody ever had told me I can drive. It’s one of those things I didn’t want to ask questions and find out the wrong answer. I bypassed that whole situation.
Was it a little scary hopping back in the driver seat for the first time?
No, the driver seat wasn’t scary at all. Being in the passenger seat was scary.
Because you don’t have control in that situation.
Yes, exactly. It’s not even just the fact that the accident happened while I was in the passenger seat, it’s just because of what you said. You’re not in control of the situation. When you’re not in control of the situation, it’s tough to deal with. The day I left the hospital for my initial hospital stay, my dad was driving. Here I am back in the car with my dad, not that my dad did anything wrong, but mentally, it puts you back into what happened. I made him drive 45 miles an hour on the parkway on the way home. It’s was one of those things where I’m never worried how I’m driving. You’ve got to worry about everyone else on the road and who’s driving the car on your end. I still haven’t been on that road again.
I’ve been on the turnpike, but not the truck side. Whenever someone else is driving, I give them a pretty big forewarning.
I’ve had the same thought process before. I’d be like, “There might be less traffic on that side because there’s more trucks. I could just breeze by them.” That’s very interesting to me. I’m going to car lane now.
One of the state policemen told me that while there are more accidents on the car side, the percentage of accidents on the truck side that are fatal is way higher. You have a better chance of dying over there, but you have a better chance of getting into an accident over there. You’ve got to pick your poison.
Four years down the road, living again.
Living again, hanging out with my friends. At this time, I wasn’t working yet.
How was it getting reintroduced back to the bar scene and hanging out with people again? Was that uncomfortable for you? Were you wearing long sleeves shirts all the time? Were you letting it show? What was going on?
I was wearing long sleeves a lot. Getting back to hanging out with your friends, just like I’ve been saying this whole time, my support system was so great throughout it all. I never lost that. My friends would take me to parties, to get-togethers. Even when I had that metal thing on the first four months, my friends dragged me out once or twice. My big thing was I never want to be the pity story either. I got back out there. All those guys helped me out.
Back to where I am medically at this point, me and my friends, we did the Belmar House. I was going to start working right after that summer. I just graduated college, I was like, “I’m doing this Belmar House thing and I’m going to start working.”
Was this 2013, ’14?
I think it was 2013. We’re getting towards the end of the summer and it’s Labor Day weekend. I’m kind of feeling under the weather. I didn’t know if it was just from being out in the sun, partying, whatever it was. I still hung out with my friends that weekend. Then Sunday came along on Labor Day weekend and I said, “Guys, I can’t do it. I’m just going to go to my dad’s house. I’m going to take it easy. I’m going to lay down.” At this time, I realized a month before that, I had a cut on my bad elbow that I didn’t think anything of. It healed. This cut is on the back of my arm. With all the nerve damage, I can’t turn my arm, I can’t see it unless I’m in the mirror pretty much. I realized there was a bubble in my arm.
Is it still there?
No. This is where the infection started. I realized and I’m playing with it, whatever, it popped. It was disgusting. I’ve never seen anything like it. It looked like shit just coming out of your body. I called my surgeon immediately, who I haven’t seen for surgery in a little while. I told him what happened, that I think I have an infection. I feel really sick and all this stuff came out of this wound. He said, “Bandage it up and first thing in the morning, go to the emergency room,” where he works and he’ll put me on schedule for surgery. Just like that, within a day, I’m back into surgery. He looks at it in surgery, he cleans it out and then we have another talk about my arm going.
Four years later?
Yeah. The infection, I didn’t notice it. I don’t know if I should’ve noticed it. It got so bad, the infection got down to the actual elbow that they repaired. It was considered what they call Osteomyelitis. Again, I don’t know this stuff. I thought infections are just, you get a scrape on your knee and you put Neosporin on it so it doesn’t get infected and you’re fine. This got to my elbow and he had another talk about, “We’ve got to take care of this infection. If we can’t, it’s a possibility we got to cut your arm off from the forearm up.” He’s doing little wound care type things prior to this for the cut in my arm because I had went to him about that cut, telling him, “This won’t heal.” He was giving me silver nitrate to put on it, all those types of stuff. It ended up healing it, but once the skin closed I guess, everything puffed up in there.
After surgery, he cleans it out and he put me on this thing called a PICC line. It’s a long-term IV. They put an IV into your inside bicep through a vein that goes directly to your heart. They put the hallow tube all the way into your heart. I was given this tube into my heart and I had to give myself antibiotic medicine for the infection at home. I had to do it three to five times a day for six weeks. I did the six weeks of this. They said, “The infection went away.” I did all these blood testings, no more infection. Thank God. Then a week later, it popped up again. I saw something weird so I went back and they did some more surgery.
I love how we’re just talking so casually about surgery now. That’s never a small thing. They got to knock you out. They’re going to put anesthesia. Every time, that is unbelievable.
I’ve got numb to the whole surgery thing. The worst part is my parents are more upset than I am. I’m like, “Stop it. Come on. You guys are stressing me out.” At this time, they’re doing more surgery. I’m in the hospital for two or three weeks. They’re doing surgery just about every other day, just pretty much going into the arm to clean the infection out. What they did was they implanted antibiotic beads in there surgically, closed it up. A week later, went in and took them out, hoping that the antibiotics that they physically put in there would do something. It’s like an atomic bomb of antibiotics they put in there. Then again I’m back on this PICC line. Where the infection was, where it got to the bone, they took a diver bone and filled it up with bone so that the infection didn’t get back in there. They put me back on this PICC line.
For four to six weeks?
No. This time it was a longer time. They gave me a more aggressive approach of medication now because the infectious disease doctor realized that it’s a pretty complex infection. It’s a tough infection. He used the word shotgun approach. Before they thought they knew exactly what the infection was, this medication should fix it. It didn’t. They went with the shotgun approach, which just means give it everything you got. They gave it everything they got as far as medication. They weren’t going to let off. Even if I said in six weeks, I feel better and the blood test comes back good, they were going to keep going and going to make sure they’re sure about this. I was on it for about seven to nine months. I was at home, giving myself IV medication.
How many times a day?
Five times a day.
The IV drip and the PICC thing, how long a session?
About 30 to 45 minutes.
This was your day for seven to nine months?
Yes, every day. The way the science works with the PICC line, it doesn’t have to hang like a regular IV. It’s a pressurized ball. I could walk around with it in my pocket at least. That was my day. I couldn’t do anything. Obviously with all those medications, you can’t just chill back and drink a beer if I wanted to. Nothing like that. I can’t get a job, I can’t go into a job and be like, “Actually, I have to give myself an IV right now.” That wasn’t fun. Then I found myself back in the hospital again. It had something to do with the infection. I think they just went back to look in it and clean it out more, to get a physical eye on the situation. It really gets hazy at this point. It’s all years ago. I didn’t write a diary or anything.
I was in the hospital for the Super Bowl. I had a wound care vacuum connected to my arm to keeping cleaning the infection out. I had spent multiple holidays in the hospital. That first time I was in the hospital, it was December 19th. I was in there for two weeks. I spent New Year’s in the hospital. I saw on Snapchat, Instagram, all my friends having all this fun. I’ve spent my birthday in the hospital. I’ve spent New Year’s twice I think. I’ve spent my friends’ birthdays, Valentine’s days, all types of holidays in the hospital. This was the Super Bowl. I’ve had to watch big sporting events in the hospital. It’s not fun. I begged the doctor, I said, “Could I just leave for one day and come back?” The doctor was like, “Yeah, but you’ve got to take the wound vacuum with you.” I went to my friend’s Super Bowl party with a wound vacuum. I looked like an 80, 90-year-old man. I saw the Super Bowl. I went back to the hospital the next day to get operated on again. It all goes back to my support system. I was able to go hang out with my friends. My family drove me everywhere. They supported me financially still. I’m still very lucky at this point as bad as the situation was.
Finally, after about nine months, the infection went away. Through those nine months, I had to go through that whole process of, “Am I losing the arm again? Do I have to lose the arm again?” It was a lot easier this time because of all the progress I made the first time and how well acclimated I got to becoming a lefty. At this point, shitty as it sounds, if they took my arm, I do everything left-handed anyway. There are a lot of things I do two handed that would definitely be a struggle, but in my mind, I think I’d be fine.
You can play golf now left-handed, right?
Yeah. A lot of people, whenever I play, they’re pretty amazed by it. It’s actually a pretty good story. When I first got hurt, maybe six months after, my dad told me about a kid we know, a kid I grew up with, who lost his arm maybe two or three years before my accident. He was actually going to come visit me in the hospital before they knew if they were cutting my arm off or not just to talk to me and be like, “Here I am, I’m fine, I’m alive. Look at me. My life hasn’t changed that much. There’s no reason to beat yourself up about it.” I’ve talked to him since. By the time he was able to make it up or whatever, they had already told me I was going to keep my arm. He ended up not making the trip.
About six months down the road, my dad told me, “Blah blah blah plays golf with one hand and he’s pretty good. You should try it out.” At this point, I’m pretty beat up. I’m still 19, 20 years old. My friends are still playing pick-up basketball, roller hockey, you’re still playing college hockey at this time; all these active things that my friends are doing and I can’t. Now, I’m going to put on all this weight, this and that. That’s all running through my head. Maybe three or four years in, at age 22, I picked up golf. I tried playing golf. I got a lesson and I tried playing golf with one hand. I fell in love with it and it’s something I avidly do today. I love it. It’s an expensive sport though.
It took a couple surgeries in a year for that one infection to go away?
Yeah, it probably took about nine surgeries and about six weeks in the hospital, spread out, and about a year for the infection to go away. Now I know whenever I get cuts and things like that, you’ve got to really take care of them. That’s why your parents tell you to clean up all your cuts with peroxide or whatever it is. It can be really bad. A lot of people don’t realize that. I found out down the road, the infection probably came from all the metal that was in my arm. That had a play in the infection.
How was your overall health been the last couple of years?
The last couple of years I’ve been pretty good. I might get surgery soon actually. It’s not that big of a thing, but I downplay surgery now. It’s still surgery. It’s something I had where they took the nerves out of my leg and put them into my arm. Your nerves, where they cut them off, they naturally want to regrow. Sometimes they start regrowing and they have nowhere to go. Imagine a bridge going to a street, they knocked the bridge down, there’s nowhere to go so it’s just going to cause a traffic jam there. What happens is it causes a tumor. It’s a ball. Imagine that traffic jam being a big ball and just growing into a bigger and bigger ball of nerve. If you tap this thing, your whole body jumps.
That’s in your arm right now?
No, it’s in my leg where they took the nerves out. I’ve had one before that was surgically removed. I just found out I have another one. It’s a benign tumor. It’s one of those things if I want it removed if the pain is bothering me.
You might do that?
I’ve got to assess the situation and see where I am in other aspects of life. If it’s really worth it right now, if I should wait.
What do you want to do in the future? What do you want to get into? Now that you know how important your health is and everything, that pretty much you’re good again. Where do you see yourself?
Right now, I’m actually in the process of getting my real estate license. The last year or two, I’ve taken a big dive into real estate. I enjoy it. One of our good friends, John, his father is a real estate agent. He’s like a second father to me. He’s helping me out and that’s what I want to do. As a real estate agent, you’re not a nine to five worker, but it’s definitely a hard job. You’ve got to put time into it. I think I could find ways to still enjoy my life. After what happened, you really learn to appreciate everything, you want to see everything and want to be able to travel.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve taken away from all this shit that has happened to you?
I think there are two big things. The one thing I’ve reiterated a few times is no matter what it is, somebody has a worse situation than you. You can’t go out complaining. There were times where I hear other people complaining. I’m sitting there like, “If these damn people only knew. Shut the hell up.” I didn’t really go out and complain. I’d complain to some of my close friends, things like that because you do have to vent.
I wouldn’t say that was complaining, I would say that’s more venting.
You do have to vent. You can’t just keep everything. You do have to talk to people about things. Everyone out there has problems. You hear people say, “My family is so fucked up.” Everyone has family problems, everyone has their own problems. Some people are worse than others. You really don’t know the story about the person next to you or the person across the room from you. You’ve got to deal with your own problems. It’s how you deal with them that really makes you who you are, how you deal with adversity.
The second biggest thing would be my value on life; how much more I appreciate things, the little things. I don’t get too upset about little things anymore. About a year before that, my dad got sick. He had a heart attack and I didn’t know if he was going to stay around. Then this happened to me. Ever since then, every single time I talk to my father, I tell him I love him. He tells me he loves me. It’s one of those things that you appreciate the things that are around you. This shouldn’t have to happen to somebody for everyone to do that. That’s why I like what you’re doing. I’ve listened to a couple of your episodes. You bring out the more positive things in life, positive energy and things like that.
Thank you, Greg. This was one of my favorite episodes. Honestly, I’ve been waiting to hear this story for a long time. I don’t think a lot of people know all the hell that you’ve been through because number one, you don’t complain. You’re always in good spirits and that’s a lesson in itself. I tell everybody, “Greg is my fucking hero. The kid never complains.” My other group of friends, they love you just because you’re just a genuine person and you’re authentic and you’re just always in high spirits after all the shit you’ve been through.
I really appreciate that. I was honored to be asked to be on here, to be honest with you. I haven’t listened to all of your episodes, but I’m sure you’ve told your story. Your story is incredible. You’re one of the best guys I’ve known since I was eight years old and to many more. Hopefully, more people find out your story, what you’re doing and what a great guy you are.
Greg, thank you. Love you, brother. Maybe we’ll get you back on here again.
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