Joel Sioson is staying positive and is determined to walk again after a serious medical emergency sent him to the hospital for more than a month and rendered him paralyzed.
The Windermere resident had been complaining of headaches in the days before he was attacked with severe pain in his head and jaw and collapsed to the floor with chest and back pains Nov. 23. His wife, Kimi Rapada, was out, but luckily their 15-year-old son, Enzo, was home to help.
Sioson was taken to Orlando Health Dr. P. Phillips Hospital with an initial diagnosis of hypertension. Five hours and multiple tests later, nothing seemed out of the ordinary and doctors could only determine that the incident was stress related.
When Sioson told his wife he couldn’t feel his legs, they called a physician friend to take a look. He ordered a CT scan, and it was determined Sioson had a life-threatening acute type 1 aortic dissection — his aortic valve was torn down to his waist.
ONE PERCENT CHANCE
Sioson was immediately flown to Orlando Health Orlando Regional Medical Center for emergency surgery.
“It’s a seven-hour surgery,” Rapada said. “They said at the time that people don’t typically survive this, don’t survive 24 hours. And as much as his was torn, he was given 1% chance of living.”
He survived the surgery, which included inserting a pacemaker, and has slowly been making progress ever since. He still cannot walk, but he is working toward that goal.
“I was able to start moving my right leg a few days after,” Sioson said. “I can move both legs now. I’m still waiting to get back my feeling. It’s pretty much stamina, strength, pretty much learning to walk again. I just started to be able to wiggle my toes. It’s more the control of it. I might be able to raise my leg, but I can’t control if it starts to move left or right.”
He is working with outpatient therapy, and he now can stand from his wheelchair with assistance.
“I’m working on standing on my own and taking strides on my own,” he said. “(I’m) teaching my muscles what to do so I can walk again.”
Doctors determined Sioson had a spinal stroke because there wasn’t enough blood going to his spine. He has what doctors consider an incomplete paralysis, so walking is possible with enough rehabilitation. His liver and kidneys also were affected, and he had a kidney stroke as well.
He spent Thanksgiving and Christmas in the hospital, finally leaving the facility Jan. 5. He was greeted with posters, balloons and a happy family.
ROAD TO RECOVERY
Sioson spends about six hours each week in outpatient therapy, where he is working on his legs.
“I’m able to transfer from my chair to the bed or to the car without any pain so far,” Sioson said. “I’m thankful for that. Also the Orlando Regional has the EXSO – it’s like a robot suit, like Iron Man, there’s only a few in Florida. They strap you in with your legs there, and it assists you in walking. The therapies I’m at, it assists you if you need assistance. It keeps your legs moving, it has balance, it tells them if I’m doing a right foot stride to move forward, how much energy the machine uses and how much energy I’m using to move the machine. … it gets me to move.”
Everyone in the family has been pitching in, including Enzo, 13-year-old Rocco and 11-year-old Juliette. Enzo was able to visit his dad in the hospital and learned how to be helpful at home; he has been training his younger siblings on assisting their dad, too.
To avoid clogging up the artificial valve in his heart, Sioson will have to take blood-thinning medicine for the rest of his life. He will have significant follow-up appointments with his cardiologist and his surgeon, Rapada said, and he still is on watch for the impacts of his spinal cord injury.
Friends, neighbors and co-workers have been working on accessibility in the Sioson house, too.
“We just want to get him independent in his own home,” Rapada said.
THOUSANDS OF BLESSINGS
Sioson works in information technology, providing help-desk support for a staffing company. He has great insurance, he said, and his employers have been understanding throughout this ordeal.
“There have been dozens, hundreds, even thousands, of blessings,” Rapada said. “We are so very thankful.”
“When I was in the hospital, I was more worried about Kimi and the kids, but the community around us, the school, the church, the neighbors around us (helped), and they’re still taking care of us,” Sioson said.
“From the minute it happened, our neighbors just stepped in and just loved on our kids,” Rapada said. “(They) took them on, whether it be that night, which was the longest and scariest of our lives, took them in that night and for the next few months. It gave me a comfort level so I can concentrate on Joel. This community has just wrapped their arms around us, and there will be days that we pay it forward in exponential ways. … We certain feel it, and our family’s just extremely grateful.”
The couple said they are proud of their children for jumping in to assist and for being brave and mature. Sioson said he asked each of them to write in a journal daily so they can capture what they’re feeling throughout this experience.
“At the end of the day, he’s here and he has three amazing children, beautiful children that he’s fighting for every single day,” Rapada said. “That’s what keeps us up, and that’s what keeps us going.”
Community Editor Amy Quesinberry was born at the old West Orange Memorial Hospital and raised in Winter Garden. Aside from earning her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, she hasn’t strayed too far from her hometown and her three-mile bubble. She grew up reading The Winter Garden Times and knew in the eighth grade she wanted to write for her community newspaper. She has been part of the writing and editing team since 1990.