After amputation, Ohio officer returns to work
"I wasn't trying to inspire anybody," the officer said. "I was just trying to not let my family down and not let my boss down"
By Emily Mills, Akron Beacon Journal, GateHouse Media Ohio
The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio
TALLMADGE, Ohio — Joe Hepler didn't think it was that bad.
The Stow police officer was cleaning out the gutters of his two-story home in Tallmadge, a suburb of Akron, on Oct. 26, 2017, when he fell off the roof.
He said he'd done the chore "150 times," and nothing was different about that day. But somehow, the ladder kicked out from the roof as he stepped down onto it, knocking him down to the driveway below.
"It wasn't like bone sticking out or anything like that," said Hepler, 51. "I mean, it hurt. I knew I had damaged my arm and my leg. But I thought I was fine."
Nearly two years later, Hepler has undergone 13 surgeries, including a below-the-knee amputation of his left leg. He recently returned to work as a patrol officer with the Stow Police Department.
"I wasn't trying to inspire anybody," he said. "I was just trying to not let my family down and not let my boss down."
Hepler, a 1986 Woodridge graduate, was raised in Cuyahoga Falls. He attended Kent State University for two years before transferring to the University of Akron, where he majored in criminal justice.
After graduation, Hepler attended the police academy at Case Western Reserve University and worked for about 2½ years — full-time at Peninsula and part-time at Bath and other smaller departments — before landing a job at Stow in June 1995.
It was while working as a police officer that he met his future wife at Stow's Lakeview Intermediate School.
M.E. Hepler, 56, teaches language arts and social studies to sixth-graders — she just completed her 29th year — and Joe was the school's "adopt-a-cop," checking on the school each day.
The couple, who celebrated their 20th anniversary Wednesday, met over Indians tickets — M.E. thought he was giving them to her, but Joe was asking her on a date.
M.E. was at school the day of the fall.
The father of four was on the roof on the front side of the house, cleaning out the gutters, while their son was working on leaves in the backyard.
"Stupid me didn't have him hold the ladder," he said.
The ladder was propping up a leaf blower Hepler was using to blow wet leaves out of the gutter — he thinks those wet leaves caused the ladder to kick out.
"As soon as I stepped on the ladder and I reached for that blower, the ladder just kicked out and I pile-drove my ankle [on the driveway]," said Hepler, who remained conscious for the entire incident.
Neighbors called 911 and got his son, who couldn't hear what was happening over the blower he was using in the backyard. He called his mom, who rushed home from the school.
Hepler is no stranger to injuries, whether from mini-bike or motorcycle accidents or playing football. But he's always recovered well.
"This was kind of a shocker," he said.
'Start of everything'
At the emergency room at Cleveland Clinic Akron General, Joe and M.E. found out Joe had a closed pilon fracture of his ankle. He also had a broken arm and a superficial head wound.
During a two-week hospital stay, doctors put an external fixator on his ankle and a plate in his elbow and sent him to Sprenger Health Care Heather Knoll Nursing and Rehabilitation in Tallmadge.
Hepler was there less than a week. He went back to Akron General around Thanksgiving because of an infection. His orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Jordan Grossman, opened up the wound and flushed it out — the first three clean-out procedures he'd undergo.
"That was the start of everything," he said.
Hepler went back to Heather Knoll, staying until around New Year's Day 2018. He went home with care and help from home health care nurses and M.E.
Over the next few months, he had 40 two-hour sessions — "claustrophobic," "hot" and "terrible," he said — in a hyperbaric chamber at Summa St. Thomas Hospital. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy uses pure oxygen in a pressurized room or tube to treat severe infections.
In late April 2018, Hepler went back to Akron General for a skin flap surgery, with his team removing a muscle from his abdomen and skin from his right thigh to try to cover the exposed wound and bone on his ankle.
Within 24 hours, the procedure had failed.
His team could try another skin flap surgery, taking a piece of muscle from his shoulder or arm. Or there was another procedure they could try that involved bone grafts.
But then his team found a blood clot in his left thigh and noticed his kidney numbers were worsening because of all of the antibiotics he was taking.
The possibility of amputation had never come up before that point, and the family was blindsided.
"It didn't seem like it was that severe," his wife said.
But going through more procedures would take months, "and I knew I would never get back to work," Hepler said.
"The other surgery was high risk and low reward," he said. "We just decided to go ahead and take it."
Hepler's amputation was done in an hour-and-a-half procedure May 18, 2018.
The days after were "just pain" and "miserable." He only spent a few days in the hospital post-amputation and eventually started physical therapy at Heather Knoll.
He used a wheelchair and crutches to get around — he never fell — before he got a temporary prosthetic leg in August 2018 from Yanke Bionics.
Hepler returned to work at the Stow Police Department in September 2018 on light duty, working on background checks for the city and taking police reports over the phone.
Under his contract, he could only work on light duty for six months. He received his permanent prosthetic leg in February 2019, and he wasn't ready to return to his regular duties in March, when the six months ran out.
So he said Stow Police Chief Jeff Film created a new position in the detective bureau to keep him with the department. He was doing the same light duty work, but it gave him another six months to prepare for returning to regular duty.
"That was a lot of my drive to get back was because he kept me around," Hepler said of his chief. "I didn't want to let him down, that's for sure. I didn't want to let her [my wife] down."
And although he's "not a good sitter," he thinks spending time with detectives "probably made me a better cop because I've always just been on the road."
Film called Hepler "very brave" with "a great sense of humor," adding, "I don't think a lot of people would have overcame that type of injury."
"When he first become injured, I was very concerned for him, but I had no doubt that he would be back," Film said. "He just has that kind of tenacity and willpower."
Back to work
While in physical therapy at Heather Knoll, Hepler had some bad days, when he wasn't sure he'd be able to return to work as a patrol officer.
The family even had a backup plan — he could be a Stow school bus driver, since he knows "all the cracks and crevices" of the city, he said.
He was eligible to retire from the police department, too.
"But I didn't want to retire," he said. "I wasn't ready mentally, financially to retire."
In May, Hepler decided physical therapy had run its course. He was able to do anything his physical therapist asked him to do, and he was ready to get back to work.
He returned to regular duty June 1, where it's business as usual patrolling the roads of Stow.
He said a lot of his co-workers still "walk on eggshells when it comes to talking about it," but he hopes they one day get to the point of joking with him about it — like a neighbor who told him he was "eating like you got a hollow leg" at a cookout.
When he wears U.S. Air Force attire in support of his son stationed in Phoenix, he's sometimes mistaken for a war veteran and thanked for his service.
"It's not what you think," he said. "I'm a klutz. I'm not a war hero."
Outside of work, Hepler, a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, hasn't returned to playing softball, but he hopes to eventually. For now, the focus remains on "getting my mojo back for work," he said.
In the meantime, he's been able to ride his bike and go in the ocean wearing his prosthetic leg on a recent family vacation to Virginia Beach.
Hepler said he wouldn't have gotten back to work without the support of a lot of people. And his thank-you list is long.
His family — including his wife M.E., his father James, his sister Lisa Riedel and his children, Kayla, Daniel, Katrina and Audrey. His church family at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Massillon.
His Fraternal Order of Police organization. His co-workers at the Stow Police Department — including a lieutenant who texted him photos of police officers who are amputees, encouraging him he could return to work.
Drs. Jordan Grossman and William Kurtz and the 5100 floor nurses at Akron General. Neighbors who mowed his yard or plowed his driveway or brought his family meals.
For someone who routinely works with the "10% of the population" making bad choices and breaking the law, all that support helped changed his perspective.
"I met so many nice people," he said. "I have a different outlook on people."
©2019 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)