The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Sunday Profile

February 3, 2013

A first responder’s response

Head trauma survivor lives to tell, excel

A quiet, frosty November morning in 1999. A winding, country way. A truck approaches and suddenly veers, going airborne through a split rail fence on Maple Fork Road. The name of the driver and sole passenger inside is Joe Voloski II.

Many Beckleyans remember the day Joe died, but he isn’t one of them.

His was an accident so horrific, a young EMT upstart, one of the first on the scene, turned in her resignation at the end of the day, he later heard. For whatever reason amid the many speculated, the then-18-year-old’s vehicle crash-landed in a neighbor’s yard two miles from his home while he was on his way to march with ROTC Color Guard in the Veterans Day Parade. His face and head, command central for all human function, were decimated.

That infamous day to Joe, in a word, defines the understated same for other head trauma survivors — “It was life-changing.”

An expected word, “miracle,” isn’t spoken once by Joe inside his narrative about what happened that day, and every day thereafter, the B.C. and A.D. of his existence. Not because he lacks appreciation for the miraculous, but because his recovery was so remarkable, the miracle part is understood.

Joe had always wanted to be a rescue man.

“As far back as I can remember, I played search and rescue, fireman or medic.”

The Eagle Scout, an achievement Joe still considers among his most significant achievements, seemed to possess an inborn sense of survival, a conviction to serve God and to serve the public, qualities he reveres in the lives of other firefighters and first responders he has known.

When he considers those who arrived at the scene of his accident, it is with the highest level of appreciation. Today, he carries a laptop with a presentation documenting his meetings with each one after his recovery. He wanted to extend his personal thanks.

Their time from response to hospital was 14 minutes. General Ambulance EMTs began lifesaving techniques, intubating him blindly, without any recognizable physical landmarks to go by.

“He just followed the air bubbles,” Joe recalled of one of the team members’ descriptions, Paramedic Billy Stables. “He was a medic in Vietnam.”

Stables hadn’t seen the level of trauma he encountered with Joe since battle. “‘You’d be amazed how quickly it comes back to you,’ he told me.”

His mother would be stopped at the door at the entryway to Raleigh General Hospital to prepare her for what she would encounter. His father, who entered by way of the rear Emergency door, had no idea the blood spilling from the back of the open ambulance parked there belonged to his own son.

The entire trauma team was ready and waiting on Joe when he arrived at RGH. It was the first such seriously traumatic case they’d had since assembly some 18 months prior, Joe was told.

Joe was resuscitated three times in surgery. A West Virginia state trooper was commissioned to drive to Virginia for an emergency supply of platelets, the essential clotting component of blood.

“I ran Raleigh County out of platelets,” Joe said, smiling.

After stabilization, he was flown from RGH to University of Virginia hospital in Charlottesville. He slipped into a coma and would stay there for 23 days, a time he refers to as his “long nap.”

Day Three and counting, while Joe’s family waited for him to wake, the neighbors found his cheekbone and teeth in the yard outside. People prayed back home and beyond, and Joe persisted.

Joe separates emotion from his litany of nitty-gritty injuries, preferring a more medical description. “I had a Lafort III Fracture with facial smash.”

The classification of the smash was that it was a closed injury, but it was technically open inside his oral cavity from a missing palate and cheek, the place where his traumatized brain swelled to. Had it not had a place to go, the damage would’ve proved irreparable and Joe would’ve died without possibility of revival or been permanently, irreparably brain-damaged.

“That was our saving grace,” said mom Debbie Voloski.

Following UVa, Joe, still considered a child at 18, was moved to the Kluge Children’s Rehabilitation Center in Charlottesville for long-term care — by his estimation, it was “the best choice ever made.”

There, a respiratory therapist who cleaned his tracheostomy was convinced he was waking up.

“Give me your best Tim the tool man growl,” he told Joe. Joe, like a bear out of extended hibernation, responded in kind with the best growl he could muster. Then his eyes opened.

They said it would be months; 26 days later, the man who won’t “play by anyone else’s rules” went home. Total recovery remained an ongoing process. Since 1999, Joe has undergone 14 operations to rebuild his face.

The scariest waking moment was brought to him by a notepad and pencil.

“I remember looking at them and thinking, ‘OK. I know what this is, but what do I do with it?’”

Joe would scribble and scrawl his way back to gross and fine motor skill mastery, graduating on time from Woodrow Wilson High School in June 2000, alongside his original classmates.

He was the 2007 West Virginia Ability Works Award winner for his amazing journey in securing gainful employment and resigning from disability income.

He initially became a medic with General Ambulance, the same fleet who responded to his crash, and worked with the man whom he credits with those precious lifesaving measures, before going on to become an accomplished civilian fire captain with the Navy Region Mid-Atlantic Fire & Emergency Services at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, Va.  

And what about the accident? Had he been messing with the radio? Ogling at an airplane reportedly flying low overhead around the same time? Did any of it matter now?

Without a memory of the day’s events, “I can tell you what I think happened,” he stated.

Young Joe was similarly headstrong, high-willed and determined as adult Joe. Back then, it was a fierce determination not only to be a firefighter, but to be a military firefighter. Despite two major obstacles he had to push through to gain admittance, a medication he had taken for a short time as a child and an entrance physical that showed he was colorblind, Joe had wanted to power through however he could to become a firefighter for the Air Force.

“My personal opinion is God was like, ‘OK. I told you twice and you didn’t listen.’ The third time, He showed me.”

Joe, a man of deep faith, is not bitter for the painful mystery he believes God allowed in his life. “Everything fell in place for me that day.”

There are distinct remnants of the day Joe can’t remember. He has very little sensation in his face. He can’t chew things that crumble or fall apart in his mouth, like hamburger, due to the loss of flexion in his lower jaw and his limitation to up and down chewing motion only (the normal lower mandible actually rotates in a circular pattern to grind foods).

“The easiest thing I can eat is a steak,” he said, explaining it is because it remains mostly intact when he chews and doesn’t get lost in his mouth the way other foods do. “My dad says it’s because it’s the most expensive thing on the menu,” he joked.

Joe is unperturbed when he is misunderstood. It generally takes a few acclimating minutes to tune in to the muffled, nasal frequency of his voice, impaired from the loss and subsequent reconstruction of the hard consonant-forming palate. It hasn’t stopped him from taking on a number of public speaking engagements at conferences supporting head trauma survivors and encouraging the disabled to return to work.

What Joe believes he most brings to the table, aside from being a rescued-turned-rescuer, is hope. Hope that life will improvA first responder’s response

Head trauma survivor lives to tell, excel

By Lisa Shrewsberry

lifestyles editor

A quiet, frosty November morning in 1999. A winding, country way. A truck approaches and suddenly veers, going airborne through a split rail fence on Maple Fork Road. The name of the driver and sole passenger inside is Joe Voloski II.

Many Beckleyans remember the day Joe died, but he isn’t one of them.

His was an accident so horrific, a young EMT upstart, one of the first on the scene, turned in her resignation at the end of the day, he later heard. For whatever reason amid the many speculated, the then-18-year-old’s vehicle crash-landed in a neighbor’s yard two miles from his home while he was on his way to march with ROTC Color Guard in the Veterans Day Parade. His face and head, command central for all human function, were decimated.

That infamous day to Joe, in a word, defines the understated same for other head trauma survivors — “It was life-changing.”

An expected word, “miracle,” isn’t spoken once by Joe inside his narrative about what happened that day, and every day thereafter, the B.C. and A.D. of his existence. Not because he lacks appreciation for the miraculous, but because his recovery was so remarkable, the miracle part is understood.

Joe had always wanted to be a rescue man.

“As far back as I can remember, I played search and rescue, fireman or medic.”

The Eagle Scout, an achievement Joe still considers among his most significant achievements, seemed to possess an inborn sense of survival, a conviction to serve God and to serve the public, qualities he reveres in the lives of other firefighters and first responders he has known.

When he considers those who arrived at the scene of his accident, it is with the highest level of appreciation. Today, he carries a laptop with a presentation documenting his meetings with each one after his recovery. He wanted to extend his personal thanks.

Their time from response to hospital was 14 minutes. General Ambulance EMTs began lifesaving techniques, intubating him blindly, without any recognizable physical landmarks to go by.

“He just followed the air bubbles,” Joe recalled of one of the team members’ descriptions, Paramedic Billy Stables. “He was a medic in Vietnam.”

Stables hadn’t seen the level of trauma he encountered with Joe since battle. “‘You’d be amazed how quickly it comes back to you,’ he told me.”

His mother would be stopped at the door at the entryway to Raleigh General Hospital to prepare her for what she would encounter. His father, who entered by way of the rear Emergency door, had no idea the blood spilling from the back of the open ambulance parked there belonged to his own son.

The entire trauma team was ready and waiting on Joe when he arrived at RGH. It was the first such seriously traumatic case they’d had since assembly some 18 months prior, Joe was told.

Joe was resuscitated three times in surgery. A West Virginia state trooper was commissioned to drive to Virginia for an emergency supply of platelets, the essential clotting component of blood.

“I ran Raleigh County out of platelets,” Joe said, smiling.

After stabilization, he was flown from RGH to University of Virginia hospital in Charlottesville. He slipped into a coma and would stay there for 23 days, a time he refers to as his “long nap.”

Day Three and counting, while Joe’s family waited for him to wake, the neighbors found his cheekbone and teeth in the yard outside. People prayed back home and beyond, and Joe persisted.

Joe separates emotion from his litany of nitty-gritty injuries, preferring a more medical description. “I had a Lafort III Fracture with facial smash.”

The classification of the smash was that it was a closed injury, but it was technically open inside his oral cavity from a missing palate and cheek, the place where his traumatized brain swelled to. Had it not had a place to go, the damage would’ve proved irreparable and Joe would’ve died without possibility of revival or been permanently, irreparably brain-damaged.

“That was our saving grace,” said mom Debbie Voloski.

Following UVa, Joe, still considered a child at 18, was moved to the Kluge Children’s Rehabilitation Center in Charlottesville for long-term care — by his estimation, it was “the best choice ever made.”

There, a respiratory therapist who cleaned his tracheostomy was convinced he was waking up.

“Give me your best Tim the tool man growl,” he told Joe. Joe, like a bear out of extended hibernation, responded in kind with the best growl he could muster. Then his eyes opened.

They said it would be months; 26 days later, the man who won’t “play by anyone else’s rules” went home. Total recovery remained an ongoing process. Since 1999, Joe has undergone 14 operations to rebuild his face.

The scariest waking moment was brought to him by a notepad and pencil.

“I remember looking at them and thinking, ‘OK. I know what this is, but what do I do with it?’”

Joe would scribble and scrawl his way back to gross and fine motor skill mastery, graduating on time from Woodrow Wilson High School in June 2000, alongside his original classmates.

He was the 2007 West Virginia Ability Works Award winner for his amazing journey in securing gainful employment and resigning from disability income.

He initially became a medic with General Ambulance, the same fleet who responded to his crash, and worked with the man whom he credits with those precious lifesaving measures, before going on to become an accomplished civilian fire captain with the Navy Region Mid-Atlantic Fire & Emergency Services at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, Va.  

And what about the accident? Had he been messing with the radio? Ogling at an airplane reportedly flying low overhead around the same time? Did any of it matter now?

Without a memory of the day’s events, “I can tell you what I think happened,” he stated.

Young Joe was similarly headstrong, high-willed and determined as adult Joe. Back then, it was a fierce determination not only to be a firefighter, but to be a military firefighter. Despite two major obstacles he had to push through to gain admittance, a medication he had taken for a short time as a child and an entrance physical that showed he was colorblind, Joe had wanted to power through however he could to become a firefighter for the Air Force.

“My personal opinion is God was like, ‘OK. I told you twice and you didn’t listen.’ The third time, He showed me.”

Joe, a man of deep faith, is not bitter for the painful mystery he believes God allowed in his life. “Everything fell in place for me that day.”

There are distinct remnants of the day Joe can’t remember. He has very little sensation in his face. He can’t chew things that crumble or fall apart in his mouth, like hamburger, due to the loss of flexion in his lower jaw and his limitation to up and down chewing motion only (the normal lower mandible actually rotates in a circular pattern to grind foods).

“The easiest thing I can eat is a steak,” he said, explaining it is because it remains mostly intact when he chews and doesn’t get lost in his mouth the way other foods do. “My dad says it’s because it’s the most expensive thing on the menu,” he joked.

Joe is unperturbed when he is misunderstood. It generally takes a few acclimating minutes to tune in to the muffled, nasal frequency of his voice, impaired from the loss and subsequent reconstruction of the hard consonant-forming palate. It hasn’t stopped him from taking on a number of public speaking engagements at conferences supporting head trauma survivors and encouraging the disabled to return to work.

What Joe believes he most brings to the table, aside from being a rescued-turned-rescuer, is hope. Hope that life will improve and go on. Hope that head trauma survivors still have positive contributions to the world.

“We were told he’d never be able to work and that he probably wouldn’t finish school,” remembered Debbie. Today, her son is contemplating which doctoral path to take. He has attained his master’s degree and is about to sit for certification to distinguish him further with a Fire Officer’s designation by the Center for Public Safety Excellence.

Now as both a survivor and a leader in an occupation that helps people in similar dire circumstances, Joe is positive about his direction and purpose.

“I don’t dwell on what happened, or why it happened. It happened.”

— E-mail: lshrewsbury@register-herald.com

 

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