Meet Joe LaTempa - From the Brink of Death to a New Life

Several weeks ago, we published a blog on the importance of having a sense of purpose. A sense of purpose would be the point where we reach a personal milestone in life and we begin to question what living means - our jobs, our kids, our friends - which for many of us became our identity. At this point in time, we begin to reevaluate what life means to us today, examining how our values have changed along the way, and just who we are when can no longer be defined by our profession as our life begins to enter a transition phase -- sometimes to a much different one than we were used to living. This can be a dramatic wake-up call for those who may experience such a dramatic change.

Joe LaTempa in 2015

Many of our readers identified with this as they reached retirement age, but we also received comments from a good number of readers who asked how someone can have a sense of purpose when they have a chronic illness or a disability and lost their jobs and livelihood because of it. This is indeed a challenge for many and is obviously life-altering but it doesn't mean it's the end of living a purposeful life. That is what this blog is about - how to find a purpose when life deals you a devastating blow. This is a story about a man named Joe LaTempa.

"When I was first told the story of Joe LaTempa, it fit perfectly into the questions we were getting regarding the blog we published about finding a sense of purpose," said certified elder law attorney RJ Connelly III. "A number of our elder law and fiduciary clients have faced similar life circumstances as Joe, one moment living a normal life, working at a profession they enjoyed and suddenly fate stepped in. It may have been a heart attack, a stroke, or early-onset dementia and because of this, they never reached retirement age and had to go on disability. Life changed for them, sometimes overnight. But as Joe points out, you can find the silver lining in any cloud, no matter how stormy it appears to be."

A Pro Wrestling Career

Joe LaTempa was, by all accounts, a huge man with the strength and heart to match. He decided to become involved in professional wrestling where he could put his size to work for him and earn a decent living. As a younger man, he was able to climb into the ring and his great size did not seem to be much of a burden for him. But as he grew older, the injuries from wrestling and the added weight on his bones began to take a toll on his body.

Big Joe LaTempa puts his weight behind a leg drop

"I knew I couldn't keep doing the things I did in the wrestling ring without some ill effect, but I didn't really believe it would become an issue so early in my life," said Joe.

What he was referring to was the pain from joint injuries as a result of being slammed around the ring and added to that, his five hundred-plus pound body.

"I sought out doctors who would give me pain medication to help with those injuries and eventually just to get up out of bed every morning. Soon 2 pills turned to four, and four turned to eight, and on and on. I became addicted to these narcotics. I loved pro wrestling but never imagined it would take a turn like this."

The Grim Truth of Pro Wrestling

While many people view professional wrestling as theater rather than a sport played out by heavily muscled or obese stuntmen instead of true athletes, it has a very dark secret - its participants die at an alarmingly high rate and at an extremely young age, with most dying before the age of 65 and many passing before the age of 40.

The reasons for these grim statistics are many. Pro wrestlers are on the road for close to 300 days a year (COVID put a hold on these numbers in 2020 and 2021) with no off-season and injuries occur and never have time to heal properly. And because wrestlers - especially those working as independents or free agents - are paid per performance, they climb in the ring even if injured to earn a living. This leads to using pain killers and for many who take this route, addiction. Then, because the pain medication causes fatigue and affects their work-out in the gym or in the ring, they use other drugs to give them energy - like cocaine or amphetamines. This toxic cocktail leads to dependency and even overdose leading to death for some but unlike "rock-stars" who party and die from drug use, this cause is not the major reason for the early deaths.

Most premature deaths in professional wrestling are attributed to natural causes, mostly cardiovascular events. And there are drugs involved in this -- anabolic steroids, which are used by the overwhelming majority of pro wrestlers, even those who are clinically obese, to encourage muscle growth and more importantly, faster healing of injuries.

Steroids implicated in cardiovascular issues

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 the overwhelming majority of these cases, the use of steroids could be directly implicated in these cardiovascular events.

A 2017 study done in neighboring 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 worse their arteries were.

This finding was supported by a 2019 study by the European Society of Cardiology that found that steroid users had thickened heart walls and decreased ejection fraction, meaning that blood was being pumped out to the brain, body, and the heart itself at a lower volume.

Add cocaine and other drugs that tax the heart to this mix, 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 you can see the heart becomes a ticking time bomb.

A Near-Death Experience

Joe LaTempa certainly fit this profile. "By the time I was 40, I began feeling really sick. 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," said Joe. In January of 2015, these issues all culminated in a major medical event the nearly took his life.

"All I remember was that I was lying on my mom's couch in Brooklyn. 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 actually in."

Woodhull Hospital

At that point, Joe's brother asked his mother what was wrong. She told him that he was 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 a very 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. I slumped into a coma where I remained for over a month." When the bloodwork came back, the diagnosis was cellulitis that had caused an infection that had spread through his body.

Cellulitis, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 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. In Joe's case, the untreated infection had spread through his body. But there was more going on in Joe's body than just the infection.