Illinois Mayor walks again after devastating spinal cord injury

On a brisk January afternoon in 2015, Joseph Michaelis was unloading his car. He was greeted by the smells of his wife cooking dinner and was about to unload his arms, when he tripped. Michaelis says if he had fallen to the right, he would have gone back outside. If he had fallen forward, he would have landed in the kitchen. As luck would have it, he fell to the left and went end-over-end down his basement steps.  His wife called out asking if he was alright. Michaelis says he recalls yelling back, “No, I’m paralyzed.” He was not able to feel or move anything but two fingers on left hand. 

Joseph Michaelis is the beloved Mayor of Highland, Illinois. It’s a small town with a population of less than 10,000 people just 30 minutes northeast of St. Louis. Mayor Michaelis was born and raised in Highland. He graduated from Highland High School in 1969 and went on to get his bachelors in secondary education from SIU–Edwardsville in 1973. He coached the varsity wrestling team at Highland High school for 15 years and as well as freshman football team for 23 years. He spent 30 years years on the Highland Police Department and two of those years were spent as the Chief of Police. He was elected the mayor of Highland in 2005. 

Mayor Michaelis was transported to a local emergency room and then transferred over to the Barnes-Jewish Hospital Intensive Care Unit (ICU). His fall caused a fracture and dislocation of 2 vertebra in his neck that resulted in a spinal cord injury and paralysis. The next morning spine surgeon Lukas Zebala, MD, performed a six hour spine surgery.

“Mr. Michaelis had paralysis from an incomplete spinal cord injury from his cervical fracture dislocation. In injuries such as this, my goal is to stabilize the broken neck with metal screws and rods and take pressure of the spinal cord as quickly as possible to allow the patient the greatest chance for neurological recovery. Mr. Michaelis’ injury was very bad and required me and my team to decompress the spinal cord and fuse his cervical spine from the front and back of his neck to maximize his ability for neurological recovery,” says Dr. Zebala. 

Mayor Michaelis awoke to the news that his surgery went better than expected, but he needed to start making arrangements and modify house to be handicap accessible. He recalls being angry hearing this and thinking, “Who are they talking about being handicapped?” He was especially concerned due to his wife’s declining health. He felt guilty with the realization that she would have to take care of him. 

Dr. Zebala says, “Neurological recovery after a spinal cord injury is difficult to predict and varies from patient to patient. My philosophy on talking with patients and families in these difficult situations is to use a direct, honest approach based on current science to help prepare everyone for the difficult and long road to recovery.”

Despite overwhelming feelings of guilt and thinking he was destined to a life of paralysis, from the beginning, his mindset became to prove everyone wrong. After a week in the ICU, Michaelis went to the Rehab Institute of St. Louis where he would spend the next two months. “The physical therapy was excruciatingly painful.” says Michaelis. “The depression is overwhelming and there is a fear that your condition won’t improve.” There were days he wanted to give up. One of the biggest milestones for him was small by anyone standards but to Michaelis it was a turning point. He was able to move his big toe on his left foot. Then one by one all of his toes on his left foot and then onto his right foot. 

Two weeks prior to being released from the Rehab Institute, he had a follow up visit with Dr. Zebala. He recalls asking when he would be able to walk again. Dr. Zebala’s answer was that it would be years, if not ever. Michaelis’s eyes gleam when he says, “I was already in the parallel bars and my goal was to walk into to my next follow up visit.”

Michaelis says the outpouring of love and support from his friends, family and community was overwhelming. He says his former students and athletes reached out to him sending cards and telling him it was his turn to overcome adversity. He says his faith was key to his success, “Your progress will be minimized without faith. Never give up because you never know what God has in store for you down the line.” 

In March of 2015, Mayor Joe Michaelis WALKED into his follow-up visit with Dr. Zebala. He shrugs and says, “I had to use a walker but I walked.”

Dr. Zebala says, “I could tell from day one, that Mr. Michaelis had an unparalleled determination to get better, which is such an important component of recovery from injuries like his. When I saw him walk in to clinic, I had an overwhelming feeling of happiness for him.  It is situations like that that make you feel so blessed to be a surgeon and have the opportunity to help people get better. There is no better feeling.”

He was released from the Rehab Institute and was moved to Eden Village Nursing home in Glen Carbon to continue his physical and occupational therapy. At this point in his recovery, he was being taken to council meetings and then back to Eden Village. On April 20, 2015, almost three months after a fall that left him diagnosed at a quadriplegic Mayor Joseph Michaelis walked into the Highland city council meeting and again became the active Mayor. He says taking back his role as Mayor was another way to keep himself motivated and set up an office in his room. He says, “I have to be an inspiration to others in my role as Mayor and giving in does not exemplify leadership.”

After a two month stay at Eden Village, he was finally able to return home and continue his outpatient therapy through St. Joseph’s hospital in Highland. His house needed minimal modifications instead of a complete overhaul. Michaelis says, “I had to disregard that I was a man in my mid-60s, I had to attack my recovery like a 20 year old. If you don’t have this mindset then age can become an excuse for mediocracy.” As his progress was moving along beyond all expectations, Michaelis found himself facing more challenges emotionally and physically. His wife Ethel, of 16 years, passed away 4 weeks after his return home. The outpouring of community support was phenomenal. He says his family and friends are what got him through those dark days. 

Michaelis says, “There are many turning points in situations such as I had, one of those was when I started physical therapy at Phoenix Therapy in Highland and was under the care of two of my former athletes, Chad Wernle and Kane Freeman. I was put on a weight-training program. Under their direction, I really started improving exponentially.” He says he continuously has to set goals for himself and goals are only as good as the motivation behind those goals. He had a goal of being able to walk without a cane by the end of 2017 and was able to stop using a cane in the fall of 2017. “Goals are merely words; they have to be backed by action, “says Michaelis. 

Chad Wernle, of Phoenix Therapy says, “Joe’s mentality has remained the same since back in his high school football coaching days, he is a go-getter, very strong mentally, he’s a tough worker, never throw in the towel and he has applied [this mentality] to his rehab. I couldn’t be more proud of him.” 

These days you will find Michaelis working out seven days a week with a mixture of weight training, water aerobics, along with treadmill and elliptical time as well as using the walking track at Korte Recreation Center. In addition to being the Mayor of Highland, Michaelis works part-time at Highland supply as well as attends a support group at the Rehab Institute of St. Louis for survivors of spinal cord injuries.  Michaelis says, “I’ve given up a million times but I’ve motivated myself a million and one times.”

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