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.

Cellulitis is painful and can lead to infections

"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 getting massive amounts of medications. I was unable to get up, walk or even feed myself," said Joe. "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 myself to lose weight and try to return to a somewhat normal life. When I arrived, I saw patients there that were twice my size, 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. It wasn't about what I weighed but the lifestyle I was living. 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 thinking. I felt I was on my way," stated Joe.

At home, his mother was very supportive and waiting for his return. "She called me one day and she 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 own medical concern, she was going to watch her and his health much more closely. "My mom was serious about this," related Joe. "She said that when I got home, she was going to cook healthy for us, quit smoking, and live a better life. We would both be happy!"

But a call the following day from Joe's brother 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 major implications for him.

Joe ballooned to over 600 pounds

"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 and trying to grieve the death of my mom," stated Joe.

As time passed, Joe began to feel somewhat 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 comes into my head and said, 'Joey, do what you need to do to stay on the earth'. For the first time, my attitude began to change 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 losing over 100 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 100 pounds I lost was wiped out and I ended up gaining back triple that amount. I was heading back to another health crisis only this time, I knew I probably would not survive," said Joe.

Understanding Emotional Eating

One of the things that Joe was able to identify as a result of the work he had done at Brookhaven Rehab was that he used food to deal with his emotions -- and he is not alone in doing that. The American Psychological Association (APA) says that 27 percent of adults report that they eat to manage stress and 34 percent of those who report overeating or eating unhealthy foods because of stress say this activity has become a way to cope with the unwanted or negative emotions that overwhelm them.

Emotional eating occurs when those who have this condition respond to feelings of stress or emotional upset by turning to food, even though they are not experiencing physical hunger. For emotional eaters, they do not consume nutritional food, rather high-carbohydrate, high-calorie junk foods. They crave items like ice cream, cookies, french fries, and pizza.

In some, emotional eating can be a symptom of depression, but in most, there is no true clinical depression present, rather a learned behavior that occurs in response to chronic stress or momentary feelings of anxiety.

Physiologically, emotional eating is thought to occur as a result of the body's increase in the hormone cortisol. Cortisol tends to trigger 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. The result is a craving for high-calorie, high-carbohydrate foods with little nutritional value, often referred to as comfort food.

From a psychological standpoint, those like Joe, who connect with food in order to seek comfort, may eat to fill an emotional void, ignoring the body's physically full signs, while continuing with mindless eating. For others, emotions cause them to overeat due to the feelings associated with food versus eating for nutrition. 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."

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 really cared about me helped me see that life is truly worth living if you just look around you and open your eyes to all the opportunities and wonderful things that exist."

Joe now weighs in at 245 lbs

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 was 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 Hospital 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 currently weigh 245 pounds, losing 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 mid-September, I caught up with Joe at an event in Commack, Long Island and I must confess, you would be hard-pressed to find a more optimistic and enthusiastic individual. But I could not help but notice a glaring irony in his life, since his surgery and health turnaround, he has taken a job in the food service industry where he is surrounded by food and alcohol -- those very things that led him down a path to destruction some six years ago. I wanted to know how he handles this.

"Learning about myself was first and foremost," Joe told me. "I know that I need food to live and I can't avoid being around it. I also found other ways to deal with the negative emotions I experience rather than turning to over-eating. This means surrounding yourself with positive people like Nicole, who helps me find ways to decompress and relax and be willing to confront the emotions I used to avoid."

Today, Joe is happy and grateful

Being a retired clinician who treated those with addictions for decades, I asked him about the feelings of guilt and shame that are hallmarks of emotional eating episodes and how he battles those demons. "When I begin to feel that way, I pay very close attention to my self-talk. Instead of coming down hard on myself for this feeling, I reward myself for not giving in to the momentary negativity and remind myself of just how far I have come and all I have accomplished. Again, stay positive rather than negative, and above all, don't beat yourself up," said Joe.

Now, as he closes in on the age of fifty, I wanted to know what advice Joe had for others his age and older. "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 almost anything to stop the pain I was in. I stopped caring about my family and more importantly, about myself. And then when I faced death, my mind changed quickly, 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.

And today, he has found his. 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. Perhaps the most important thing I do is listen. At times being silent is the best support you can give someone. 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 cares."

"Joe is a perfect example of searching for and finding a purpose in life," said Attorney Connelly. "When you are thankful for where you are and view your own life in positive terms, this attitude tends to add value and positivity to every life you touch. Sending out positivity to others really does matter."

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