Staff, patients at Joliet clinic come to aid of double amputee
By Denise Baran-Unland For The Herald-News June 19, 2012 12:52PM
Tony Caronia (from left), ATI's Joliet clinic director; Matt Whalen; Jerry Wall, ATI driver; and Brian Piantek, physical therapist. | submitted photo
Updated: July 21, 2012 6:13AM
In 2006, Matt Whalen, 23, of Braceville, a scoliosis sufferer, underwent a double amputation after a staph infection invaded his bones. He could not attend physical therapy since his mother, his sole caregiver, was battling cancer and could not take him.
After she passed away in January, another relative, concerned for Whalen’s future, approached ATI Physical Therapy in Joliet and asked if it could help Whalen. What followed was truly a miracle.
Staff and patients alike rallied around the young man and uplifted him physically, emotionally and financially. Whalen now walks with a walker, works a part-time job cutting grass at the rate of five to 11 yards per week and will soon add a second job to his lineup.
“I listened to Matt’s situation, and knew we could help him,” said Tony Caronia, physical therapist and Joliet clinic director. “As difficult as Matt’s case seemed, I was confident our staff would make a difference in his life. Plus, with our transportation services, Matt would have no trouble getting to therapy. ”
For 90 minutes a day, three days a week for three months, Whalen worked on balance and strengthening exercises until, just four weeks ago, he could be safely discharged to continue practicing on his own.
“Our goal is to always get someone as functional as possible,” Caronia said. “However, just because we discharge someone, doesn’t mean he can’t contact us with questions or concerns. We told Matt he could always call us and we check in with him, too.”
Whalen’s upbeat attitude impressed everyone at ATI, but his mother had always told him, “You have to stay positive or you’ll never get to where you want to be.” And independent and walking was where Whalen intended to go. As Whalen grew closer to his goal, the rest of the magic began.
One day, while riding to therapy, Whalen casually remarked to his ATI driver, Jerry Wall, how he was delaying fixing a broken wheel on his wheelchair to save for his mother’s headstone. Wall shared the story with Caronia, who mentioned it at a staff meeting.
“As a group, we decided to start a change war,” Caronia said. “Our area clinics created some friendly competition to see which location could collect the most loose change for Matt.”
When an ATI patient heard that story, he immediately and anonymously donated $400 and returned the next day with an additional $800.
Wall then contacted two businesses. One reduced the price of a new wheelchair; the other donated $500 and offered to assist with employment.
More staff members and additional patients donated, too. The result was a new wheelchair for Whalen and the funds to pay for his mother’s funeral and purchase her headstone.
“It was an emotional day,” Caronia said. “It left a mark on everyone at the clinic, and it obviously meant a lot to Matt, too. It made people more aware of certain situations and more willing to take that extra step.”
Whalen, who had started referring to everyone at ATI as his family and the facility as his “home away from home,” was stunned at such a generous outpouring of care towards him as he strove to master his prostheses and stand once again on his own two legs.
“I always wanted my mom to see me walk again,” Whalen said, “and I know she’s looking down on me smiling.”