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Rehabilitation Institute Helps Civic Leader Get Back on His Feet

Energetic and always on the go, Billy Joel serves tirelessly in South Florida civic and community affairs. The healthy 75-year-old rarely misses a beat, but when he became seriously ill one weekend, he knew it was no ordinary stomach bug slowing him down. In fact, it was the beginning of a long journey that led him to Memorial Regional Hospital South to get him back up to speed.

When the stomach illness hit, Mr. Joel was so sick he had a fever of 104 degrees, was admitted to a hospital in Miami-Dade County and received antibiotics for five days. Doctors there diagnosed him with campylobacteriosis, which is caused by Campylobacter bacteria often found in undercooked meat.

While vacationing out of the country a few days earlier, Mr. Joel had eaten a hamburger that he suspects was the source. Most people recover from campylobacteriosis in two to five days without antibiotics, but in rare cases, it can cause severe complications.

"Four days after leaving the hospital, I was walking to my car, and my feet and legs gave out," Mr. Joel says. "I became paralyzed."

The paralysis eventually spread to Mr. Joel's waist, and he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome. A rare disorder in which the body's immune system attacks the nerves, Guillain-Barré affects only 1 or 2 people per 100,000. The exact cause is unknown, but it often follows a stomach illness or respiratory infection.

Step by Step

To recover from Guillain-Barré, doctors recommended inpatient physical rehabilitation to help Mr. Joel regain strength and walk again. After researching and visiting area rehabilitation centers, he says he and his family chose the Rehabilitation Institute of South Florida at Memorial Regional Hospital South because of its excellent reputation. He entered the Rehabilitation Institute in a wheelchair but was determined not to leave in one.

"Knowing Memorial, I made a request to go there," Mr. Joel says. "Everyone was fabulous. I said I'll leave with a cane, but not the wheelchair."

At Memorial, Mr. Joel says he found physicians, therapists and staff dedicated to helping him walk out on his own two feet. Leading the team was Bryce Epstein, MD, FAAPMR, who is board-certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation. Dr. Epstein developed a personalized plan of care specifically for Mr. Joel's condition.

To develop his motor skills, Mr. Joel spent many hours on Determination Drive, a simulated environment that helped him practice everyday life skills. As part of his neurological rehabilitation, he practiced driving a MINI Cooper, as well as sitting on and standing up from a low park bench. Therapists also helped him use a treadmill, climb steps and regain strength.

Circle of Support

Another important part of Mr. Joel's recovery was the love and emotional support of his wife, three children, other family members and friends, who encouraged him every step of the way. After almost two weeks of therapy, Mr. Joel was dismissed from the Rehabilitation Institute with the ability to walk.

"I hired a private trainer for water therapy in the pool," he says. "I play tennis four days a week and go to the gym three days a week. I've lost 15 pounds, and I'm around the weight I was when my wife and I were married.

"I'm in better general health now than before I was sick," he says. "This all due to the care I had at Memorial. I'll always be grateful to them."


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