Man struggles to recover from fall on ice, paralyzing spinal cord injury

By TERRY RINDFLEISCH / La Crosse Tribune

Joe and Mary Arlt had visions of retirement — buy some land in Jackson County, perhaps, or a recreational vehicle to travel the country. It was only a few years away.

That all changed with a fall on the ice last winter.

Now, they just hope to raise enough money to buy a used wheelchair van so Joe can get around more easily.

"We're at an age where things were going well, and we were looking forward to retirement, and then we get whopped in the face," Mary said. "There are times I think, ‘Please, make this a bad dream.'"

Mary's sister-in-law had died, and she had family staying at her La Crosse home after the funeral service Jan. 1, 2005. That night, there was an ice storm.

Joe got up the next morning and went outside to throw some salt on the driveway. Later, he began chipping the ice to make a path before the start of the Packers-Bears football game on TV.

He went toward the end of the driveway, hit a little incline, slipped and fell forward on his face. His head snapped back, and he heard a cracking sound.

"I thought I broke my arm," Joe said. "There was a thin film of ice and it was very slippery."

Joe was conscious, but couldn't move. "I was in shock," he said. "I couldn't move my legs, arms, nothing."

He yelled for help, but knew no one would hear him — the family was watching the NFL game preview.

But his brother-in-law, Steve, noticed Joe wasn't around for the kickoff — a little unusual for a big-time Packers man — and went to check.

Joe, 63, had never broken a bone, never had surgery or even been in the hospital. He didn't even have a family doctor.

He said he wasn't prepared for what was to come. "I thought I'd be in for four to five weeks, then I thought I'd be moving about," Joe said.

Joe had a severe spinal cord injury, breaking three vertebrae in his back, plus a separated left shoulder. Surgeons replaced the fourth, fifth and sixth vertebrae and placed a titanium rod to stabilize his spine.

He started therapy in late January and was hospitalized for three months. Then suddenly, Joe's insurance company said he had to leave the hospital in 48 hours.

"We had to scramble for a hospital bed," Mary said. "We didn't have a decent commode and he went home in a borrowed hospital wheelchair in the middle of a snowstorm." Brian, Joe's 29-year-old son, helped build a ramp in four hours.

Mary said she thought she was losing her mind during the first three weeks of her husband being at home.

"We just started training at the hospital on how to take care of Joe, and we'd figure he had another month and a half in the hospital," Mary said.

It takes two hours each morning to get Joe ready for the day. She has trouble lifting her husband, but said Brian has been a godsend.

Insurance paid for an electric lift and an electric wheelchair, which Joe is learning to operate with his chin.

Joe has had home therapy, and now goes to Gundersen Lutheran's therapy pool twice a week and occupational therapy at Franciscan Skemp twice a week.

When Joe was hospitalized, he could only move a big toe. Now he has some movement in his left leg and foot. He can move his fingers a little and shrug his shoulders.

Joe has been on medical leave from a job he loved as press operator at Inland Printing. Before the fall, he said, he had never missed a day of work in 13 years.

Although he qualifies for disability, Joe's insurance runs out in January. The couple has plenty of medical bills, but Mary describes the debt as "a little bit."

Mary, who retired a few years ago from working in patient services at Gundersen Lutheran, said she can't get a job because she can't leave her husband alone.

"We've gotten by with good family, good Brian, good neighbors and good friends," Mary said.

Family and friends are holding a benefit Saturday at Mary, Mother of the Church Parish. The money will go toward medical bills and a wheelchair van.

In order to get to his therapy, Joe has to pay about $425 a month for special medical transportation to the hospitals.

Joe and Mary also recently lost a grandchild, who died of cancer at 9 months.

"I never thought something like this would happen to me in my wildest dreams," Joe said. "Many times I ask, ‘Why me and why this of all the things that could happen?'

"We have our good days and bad days, but therapy is helping," he said. "I'm ready to go, but I can't go. I still hope I can walk again."

Terry Rindfleisch can be reached at (608) 791-8227 or