José Rivera has always been a hard worker. He’s proud to put in a good day’s work and has been doing that at Traff Tech, a traffic control company, for 20 years. Best of all, he was able to do his job while working alongside his son, Luis.
Until August 2020.
José woke up with back pain. After some diagnostic tests, he was told that either had a pulled muscle or it could be his sciatic nerve. He got a prescription to help with the pain and was soon back to work. A few weeks later, though, his legs started feeling like they were asleep. José brushed it off. After all, he was not one to complain. So he took a bath, watched TV and went to bed.
But the next morning, he couldn’t get out of bed. He couldn’t stand up. His legs were completely numb. José called one of his sons, who called the paramedics. When the paramedics tried to stand him up, his legs were like noodles.
José and his family told the paramedics to take him to MetroHealth. “I know MetroHealth has a lot of good doctors and specialists,” he says. “[I thought] Whatever you tell me that this is, that’s what it is. But let me go home.”
Unfortunately, José wasn’t going home anytime soon. Doctors had determined that José had a malignant tumor on his spinal cord that needed to be removed immediately. The good news was that surgeons managed to remove most of the tumor. The bad news, however, was they couldn’t guarantee that José would ever be able to walk again—thanks to the location of the tumor and the damage it had already caused.
José never cried. At least not in front of his children. Until he learned he may not walk again.
“He cried because of us,” shares Mimi Rivera-Crow, José’s middle child and oldest daughter. “He didn’t want to have his kids take care of him.”
José spent four weeks at MetroHealth as an inpatient. After that, he began a seven-week course of radiation therapy to shrink the tumor. He was still undergoing radiation when he started outpatient therapy at MetroHealth with Amanda “Mandy” Simmons (physical therapy) and Megan Vajda (occupational therapy). When he began, José couldn’t walk at all. He was confined to a wheelchair and couldn’t get in or out without assistance.
“Therapy was hard,” he says. “I had to learn how to walk all over again. They’d always tell me, ‘You’ve got your legs, now use your brain to start moving.’”
In the three months that José worked with Megan Vajda, an occupational therapist at MetroHealth, he increased his upper body and core muscle strength and his endurance. One of his first accomplishments was learning how to cook meals from his wheelchair. Almost from the get-go, both Megan and Mandy Simmons, José’s physical therapist, were struck by José’s motivation and focus on future goals.
“He wanted to be as independent as he could be for his self-care,” Megan says.
He says Megan and Mandy—who had become like family—supported his goals and encouraged him along the way.
“They helped me a lot. They were like my mothers, teaching me how to walk,” he says. “When I see that they’re willing to go through the trouble to teach me, I don’t want to let them down.”
To celebrate his last day of therapy, Mandy and Megan brought in chocolate chip pancakes and ice cream for José, his daughters Mimi and Yaritza, and Yaritza’s 7-year-old twin daughters.
When José was released from the hospital, Yaritza and her daughters moved in with him so Yaritza could be his primary caregiver.
“They would help him with therapy,” his daughter Mimi said of the twins. “They would yell at him to keep going. They motivate him every morning. They help him stretch.”
Gradually José worked his way up to using a walker, then a cane. Today, he is walking on his own. After that, José began dreaming about dancing again. At a family gathering in September 2021, José did just that—dancing for the first time since his surgery.
Now José is focused on driving and returning to work—two more ways to become independent again.
“I feel like I need to keep moving. I always like to stay busy doing something,” he says. “If I go back to work, I could make a little bit of money, and it will keep me moving.”