The Joe LaTempa Story - From the Brink of Death to a New Purpose in Life
By Don Drake, Connelly Law Offices, Ltd.
A previous blog that received many comments was the story of Joe LaTempa. Joe had a dream in life to be a professional wrestler, but getting there would lead him down a destructive path of drugs, alcohol, and overeating that led him to the brink of death. In today's blog, we will revisit this story.
"Life is a journey that can sometimes lead us to unexpected destinations," stated professional fiduciary and certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III. "Along the way, we may question our purpose and identity when faced with a significant change in our lives. One might receive a wake-up call at some point in one's life for several reasons, such as retirement, severe or chronic illnesses, disabilities, or other unexpected life-altering events that can significantly impact one's routine and daily life. Such events can be challenging to cope with and can cause significant stress and anxiety. However, they can also present an opportunity to re-evaluate one's values and beliefs, rediscover a new sense of purpose, and explore new possibilities. It's a time for introspection and self-reflection, which can help individuals grow and develop their inner strength."
Many of our readers have shared their experiences of reaching retirement age and contemplating their purpose. However, for those who have suffered from chronic illnesses, disabilities, or sudden life-altering events, finding a sense of purpose can be even more daunting and occur at any age. But age is just a number and should not limit anyone from exploring the opportunities that lie before us.
In this blog, we'd like to introduce you to Joe LaTempa, who faced a life-changing event that forced him to go on disability and retire early from a career he loved. Instead of letting it defeat him, Joe found a new sense of purpose and meaning in his life. His story is inspiring and can help us learn how to find a silver lining in the darkest of clouds. We hope to inspire you to discover your purpose through Joe's story, even in the most challenging times. We believe every person has unique skills and talents that can be used to positively impact the world, no matter what life throws at us.
A Pro Wrestling Career
Joe was a towering man whose impressive proportions were matched only by the strength and heart that he possessed. He wanted to capitalize on his size and make a good living, so he pursued a professional wrestling career. In his younger years, he was more than capable of handling the physical demands of the sport, and his massive frame was not a hindrance. However, as time went on, the toll of the injuries sustained in the ring, coupled with the added weight on his bones, began to take a heavy toll on his body.
Joe knew he couldn't continue pushing his body to its limits without facing severe repercussions. But despite his concerns, he never imagined that the pain and suffering would come so early in his life. The joint injuries resulting from the intense physicality of wrestling were causing him immense discomfort, and the added weight of his 500-plus-pound body only intensified the agony.
Desperate for relief, Joe sought out medical professionals who could provide him with the pain medication he needed to cope with his injuries and continue living his life and performing in the ring. Initially, taking a couple of pills was enough to dull the pain and enable him to carry on. But as time went by, his tolerance for the medication increased, and he found himself taking increasingly more to achieve the same effect. Before he knew it, Joe had become addicted to the powerful narcotics he relied on to function. He never could have imagined that his love for pro wrestling would lead him down such a dark and dangerous path.
The Grim Truth of Pro Wrestling
Although professional wrestling is often considered more of a theatrical performance than a sport, with many of its performers being heavily muscled or overweight stuntmen rather than true athletes, it harbors a dark secret --- the participants in this industry have a startlingly high mortality rate, with many of them dying before the age of sixty-five and a substantial number passing away before the age of forty. The reasons are simple yet complicated.
In Joe's time, those working as independents or free agents were paid per match, so they were forced to climb into the ring, even if injured, to earn a paycheck. This led to the use of painkillers and, for many who took this route, addiction. Because the pain medication caused fatigue and affected their workout in the gym or the ring, many used other drugs to give them energy - like cocaine and amphetamines. This toxic cocktail led to dependency, overdose, and death for some, but unlike "rock stars" who party and die from narcotics or other street-level drugs, this cause is not the sole reason for many of the early deaths.
In the world of professional wrestling, when wrestlers pass away at an early age, and it is not due to a drug overdose, it is usually attributed to natural causes, specifically cardiovascular events. This may be understandable for those who are overweight and may not look athletic, but what about those who look like some of the healthiest people on the planet? After all, those heavily muscled individuals must spend hours in the gym caring for their bodies, but sadly, even in these cases, drugs may have also played a role.
Not surprisingly, pro wrestlers often use anabolic steroids, even those who are clinically obese, to promote muscle growth and, more importantly, to speed up the healing process of injuries. According to a study by Eastern Michigan University that examined pro wrestlers active between the years of 1985 and 2011, their mortality rates were 2.9 times greater than the rate for men in other professions in the United States. It also found that cardiovascular disease was rampant among many wrestlers, resulting in heart attacks and premature death. In most of these cases, the use of steroids could be directly implicated in cardiovascular events.
A 2017 study done in nearby Massachusetts and published in the American Heart Association's journal Circulation found that echocardiograms of steroid users had "significantly weaker hearts" than those who never used steroids. The authors stated that steroid users had "significantly more plaque build-up in their arteries than non-steroid users," and the longer they used steroids, the more damaged their arteries were.
This finding was supported by a 2019 European Society of Cardiology study that found that steroid users had thickened heart walls and decreased ejection fraction, meaning that blood was being pumped out to the brain and body by the heart at a lower volume. Add cocaine and other stimulant-type drugs that tax the damaged heart to this mix, along with the adrenaline rush of climbing in the ring in front of a cheering and jeering crowd, the fatigue of travel, and a poor diet from being on the road, and the heart becomes a ticking time bomb.
"By the time I was 40, I began feeling really sick," said Joe, who fits the profile identified by the studies. "My body had taken a beating, I was addicted to painkillers, and my weight continued to spiral out of control, leading to other health issues." In January of 2015, these issues all culminated in a significant medical event that nearly took his life.
A Near-Death Experience
It was a cold and quiet January day in Brooklyn, but everything was about to change. "All I remember was that I was lying on my mom's couch, and I couldn't wear pants because my legs were so painful that even the slightest touch would make me scream in pain," Joe remembered. "I just laid there for two days, afraid to move while getting sicker and sicker. My legs were aching and pulsating, hot and red. I was in and out of consciousness. Then my brother came over with his two chihuahuas, and one of them jumped on my leg, scratching it, and I yelled out in pain, causing him to see what condition I was in."
At that point, Joe's brother asked his mother what was wrong. She told him he had been there for two days but did not want her to do anything for him. He took one look at Joe and knew he was seriously ill.
"I was hallucinating and mumbling, and my brother told her that something needed to be done immediately, so they called the ambulance, and I was transported to the emergency room at Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn."
Upon arrival at the hospital, Joe was delusional, telling stories about witnessing a murder and other imagined tales. Hooking him up to a variety of monitors, it was evident to the medical professionals that Joe was an extremely sick man and his body was failing fast.
"I had a systemic infection," said Joe. "While waiting for the results of the bloodwork, my heart stopped for 13 seconds, causing the medical providers to perform CPR on me to restart it." When the bloodwork returned, the diagnosis was cellulitis, which had caused the infection to spread throughout his body. Joe remained in a coma for over a month.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, cellulitis is a common bacterial skin infection that causes redness, swelling, and pain in the infected area of the skin and, if left untreated, can spread and cause serious health problems. These problems can include blood infection (sepsis), bone infection (osteomyelitis), inflammation of the lymph vessels (lymphangitis), inflammation of the heart (endocarditis), infection of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord (meningitis), shock, tissue death (gangrene) and can be fatal. But there was more going on in Joe's body than just the infection.
"The doctors had no idea about my addiction to pain medication," said Joe. "During the bloodwork, they found narcotics, and my family informed them that I was taking Percocet and morphine to handle the pain from wrestling and the strain my weight was putting on my joints. So not only was I being treated for the infection, but I was also being detoxed from the narcotics while in the coma."
During this time, Joe's kidneys had shut down, and his bowels were uncontrollable. "My mom told me that my urine looked like Coca-Cola, and I had to wear a diaper that needed to be changed multiple times throughout the day. I never envisioned myself being in this condition, unable to care for myself and dependent on those around me," said Joe.
When he emerged from the coma, Joe saw machines surrounding his bed and heard a frightening "squishing" sound coming from next to him. "I asked the medical people what was going on. Because my body had shut down, I was on dialysis, had IV tubes in my arms and neck, and was getting massive amounts of medications. I could not get up, walk, or even feed myself. "I went from being the tough pro wrestler from Brooklyn to lying helpless in a bed with a diaper on and unable to control my bodily functions. This had become my reality, and it was scary."
Losing His Mother
After three months, Joe was released to a rehab facility called Brookhaven, which was on the border of Queens and Rockaway. "This place was for morbidly obese people like me to lose weight and try to return to a somewhat normal life. When I arrived, I saw patients there who were twice as large as me, some weighing up to 1500 pounds! I told myself that I wasn't one of them," Joe stated. "But I soon learned that I was. And it wasn't about what I weighed or what they weighed, but about our lifestyle and thinking. I had to make some serious changes if I wanted to live again."
For two weeks, Joe adapted to his new surroundings and met and formed relationships with other patients there. What he saw he didn't like. "Most of those guys refused to push themselves and do the hard work needed to begin a new life. I didn't want to be there, so I knew what I had to do. I started hitting the weights, exercising, and taking the advice of the counselors on changing my thought processes. I was on my way," stated Joe.
At home, his mother was incredibly supportive and waiting for his return. "She called me one day and was so happy," remembered Joe. "She actually said she had a mild heart attack earlier in the week but was feeling great after visiting her doctor."
Joe said that she promised him that after her recent medical concerns, she would watch both of their health much more closely. "My mom was serious about this," related Joe. "She said that when I got home, she would cook healthy for us, quit smoking, and live a better life. We would both be happy!" But Joe's brother's call the following day nearly destroyed his world.
"May 23, 2015, I can't forget that date. When I spoke to my mom just the day before, she was happy and hopeful, but then my brother called with the news that she had died. I was in a state of shock, trying to absorb the worst news possible for me to hear." Although he struggled to walk and had not fully recovered from the battle his body had been through, he signed himself out of the hospital to be with her one final time. But this action had significant implications for him.
"When I told the medical people at the hospital what I wanted to do, they advised me against it for two reasons," said Joe. "First, they said I was not medically stable, and second, there was such a long waiting list for a bed that I would lose my place and would not be able to return. But this was my mom, the woman who supported me and was there for me when no one else was. I had to be there to say goodbye."
Joe attended the funeral and returned to his home in Brooklyn, but his body was still fighting him. "I soon became very ill again, unable to take care of myself, and I ended up back in Woodhull Hospital for another month, wondering what would happen to me while trying to grieve the death of my mom," stated Joe.
As time passed, Joe began to feel better, and as his thinking became more lucid, he fell back on his church upbringing as a source of support. "I started praying, looking for some answers. One day, my mom's voice came into my head, and she said, 'Joey, do what you need to do to stay on the earth.' My attitude changed for the first time, and I began to look at the positives instead of the negatives." Unfortunately, that didn't last long.
After being released from the hospital and initially losing over one hundred pounds, Joe returned home determined to succeed, but being surrounded by memories of his mother and reminders of the things they did in life together sent him on an emotional downward spiral. "I turned back to eating again, my emotional crutch. The one hundred pounds I lost was wiped out, and I gained back triple that amount. I was heading back to another health crisis, only this time, I knew I would not survive," said Joe.
Understanding Emotional Eating
Joe, who had undergone rehabilitation at Brookhaven, was able to identify one of the root causes of his eating habits. He realized that he used food as a coping mechanism to deal with his emotions. This phenomenon, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), affects 27 percent of adults who report eating to manage stress. Additionally, 34 percent of those who overeat or consume unhealthy foods due to stress say that this behavior has become a way to cope with the negative emotions that overwhelm them.
Emotional eating is a condition where individuals respond to feelings of stress or emotional upset by turning to food, even if they are not physically hungry. Emotional eaters tend to consume high-carbohydrate, high-calorie junk food, sometimes called "comfort food" with little nutritional value.
In some cases, emotional eating can also be a symptom of depression. However, for most individuals, there is no true clinical depression present. Instead, it is a learned behavior that occurs in response to chronic stress or momentary feelings of anxiety.
Physiologically, emotional eating is thought to occur due to the body's increase in the hormone cortisol. Cortisol triggers the body's stress (fight or flight) response, including increasing the heart and breathing rate, blood flow to muscles, and visual acuity. As these parts of the body gear up, appetite also increases to supply the fuel needed to keep the fight or flight response going.
From a psychological standpoint, those like Joe, who connect with food to seek comfort, may eat to fill an emotional void, ignoring the body's physical signal that they are "full" while continuing with mindless eating. For others, emotions cause them to overeat due to the feelings and memories associated with food versus eating for nutritional purposes. Some even use food as a substitute for emotional intimacy. "For me," said Joe, "food definitely filled a void in my life, and it took me time to actually figure out what that void was and how to confront it."
A Life-Changing Relationship
It was 2016 when Joe saw his life begin to turn around. "In March of that year, I met a beautiful woman named Nicole on the internet. I was ashamed of my size, so I turned to the computer for relationships. She told me that no matter how big I was, she cared for me, for the person I was inside," stated Joe. "She really changed how I looked at life. Having someone who cared about me helped me see that life is worth living if you look around you and open your eyes to all the opportunities and wonderful things that exist."
Now, having someone who loved and supported him, Joe began to search for more answers. Along with Nicole, he went to the Mount Sinai Hospital in Queens to discuss their weight loss surgery program. "The doctors there told me I had a great attitude and put me on a strict six-month weight loss program to see how much I could lose by myself and if I was truly dedicated to a new life. If I were successful, I would be scheduled to get the surgery. As it turned out, I outdid their expectations!"
On December 13, 2017, Joe and Nicole headed to Mount Sinai for the procedure. At that point, he weighed 606 pounds. "I had Nicole by my side, but she told me that I had to do it for me, not for her, and she would support me every step of the way. Today, I weigh 245 pounds and have lost the weight of two people. I am proud of what I accomplished, and I want others to know that they, too, can make major changes in life -- whether it's losing weight, overcoming addictions, or just developing a more positive attitude about life. Positivity leads to better outcomes."
Meeting Joe in Person
In September 2020, I had the chance to meet up with Joe at an event in Long Island, and I was genuinely impressed by his positive and enthusiastic demeanor. However, I couldn't help but notice a striking irony in his life: after undergoing a gastric bypass procedure, battling emotional eating, and making noteworthy progress in his health, he took a job in the food service industry, where the temptation of food and alcohol constantly surrounds him - the very things that once led him down a path of self-destruction six years ago. I was curious to know how he coped with this challenging situation.
During our conversation, Joe shared details about his journey toward overcoming emotional eating. He stated that his first step was to learn more about himself and his triggers. Joe acknowledged that food is necessary for him to survive, and it is impossible to avoid it altogether. He has found effective ways to manage his negative emotions instead of turning to food as a coping mechanism. For instance, Joe surrounds himself with positive people like his friend Nicole, who helps him unwind, relax, and confront the emotions he used to avoid.
As someone who spent decades as a treatment provider for individuals with addictions, I was curious to know more about how Joe dealt with the feelings of guilt and shame that often accompany emotional eating episodes. He explained that he pays close attention to his self-talk when he experiences such negative emotions. Rather than beating himself up for feeling that way, Joe rewards himself for not giving in to the momentary negativity. He reminds himself of the progress he has made so far and the accomplishments he has achieved. Joe advises others to stay positive instead of negative and to avoid self-criticism.
Now approaching fifty, Joe had advice for others facing a comparable situation. "You can't give up, no matter what! Before I ended up in the hospital, I remember feeling so sick and not really caring if I lived or died. I would have done anything to stop the pain I was in, and I thought of a lot of ways to do it. I stopped caring about my family and, more importantly, about myself. And then when I faced death, my mind changed quickly, and I didn't want to die. I wanted to live because I knew I could be of value to others. Everyone has a purpose. Just look around you, keep an open mind, and you will find yours," said Joe.
Today, Joe visits others facing similar circumstances as he did and offers his support and advice. "I attend meetings and talk about my successes but also my failures because it was those failures that allowed me to learn. The most important thing I do is listen. At times, being silent is the best support you can give someone and allow them to find answers that fit who they are. Always remember that we all have a story, and it's important that everyone has a chance to tell theirs to someone who listens and truly cares."
A Final Thought
Attorney Connelly speaks highly of Joe, admiring his tenacity and drive in seeking out his true calling in life. "A positive outlook, finding a sense of purpose, and gratitude for one's current circumstances can have a ripple effect on the lives of those around them," he said. "Joe's unwavering positivity has undoubtedly added value and joy to the lives of those he encounters, proving that spreading positivity truly can make a difference, no matter what age you are."
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