Health

'Last Adventures of Joe's Left Foot': Man has fun as amputation looms

July 16, 2014 at 7:20 PM ET

Joe Pleban and his girlfriend, Johnna Hetrick, pretend to saw off Joe's foot.
Courtesy of Joe Pleban
Joe Pleban and his girlfriend Johnna Hetrick pretend to saw off Joe's foot.

Instead of approaching amputation with trepidation, 23-year-old Joe Pleban armed himself with humor, as evidenced by his Facebook page, "The Last Adventures of Joe's Left Foot."

Consider his short-lived ankle tattoo, "Please Cut Here," which he got to lighten the mood.

“We kind of decided that if I'm going to do a Facebook page about amputation, we might as well have fun with it,” he told TODAY.com.

Joe Pleban's "Please Cut Here" tattoo near his ankle.
Courtesy of Joe Pleban
Joe Pleban's "Please Cut Here" tattoo near his ankle.

The Virginia resident had endured three leg surgeries in as many years due to a rare joint disease called pigmented villonodular synovitis, which caused benign tumors to develop in his left ankle. The chronic injuries were hampering his active lifestyle, which included running, rugby and snowboarding.

Knowing there may be no end to the surgeries otherwise, Pleban asked doctors to amputate his left leg below the knee.

“I’m a very active person,” he said. “I spent the last six years watching all the sports I love be taken away from me because of pain. I was just kind of done with it. I wanted to do an amputation, get a prosthetic and get back to an active lifestyle.”

Joe Pleban attended the Firefly Music Festival, where band members from Royal Teeth marveled at his "Please Cut Here" tattoo.
Courtesy of Joe Pleban
Joe Pleban attended the Firefly Music Festival, where band members from Royal Teeth marveled at his "Please Cut Here" tattoo.

When he scheduled his surgery for June 25, he had a month remaining with his left leg intact, so he and his girlfriend, Johnna Hetrick, 27, created a bucket list of activities and destinations, including a skydiving adventure, a paintball excursion, a music festival and a Caribbean vacation.

“At that point, my girlfriend and I decided we were going to take this last month before the surgery, and we were going to do as many things as possible,” he recalled. “So, literally, every weekend, we planned something to do.”

In the interest of keeping his friends and family members in the loop without having to reach out to them separately, he created his public Facebook page, where he posted pictures of his adventures. But the popularity of the page, which now has more than 7,400 fans, may have more to do with Pleban’s sense of humor. Photos show a tattoo artist inking inking a dotted-line and the words “Please Cut Here” on his left ankle; Hetrick pretending to cut his leg with a handsaw; and a man in construction gear feigning the same act with a circular saw.

Joe Pleban gets a tattoo
Courtesy of Joe Pleban
A tattoo that couldn't last: Joe Pleban gets inked.

“My family always views things as humor, so it’s just sort of business as usual,” he said. “It was my idea to get the tattoo, because I was kind of like, ‘I’m going to get an amputation; I might as well get the only permanent, non-permanent tattoo.’”

The growing popularity of the Facebook page became only made Pleban more motivated to spread a message of positivity.

JJoe and his best friend Aaron Wagoner pretend to buzz-saw Joe's foot off.
Courtesy of Joe Pleban
Joe and his best friend Aaron Wagoner pretend to buzz-saw Joe's foot off.

“Even before the surgery, I wanted to come back and be a patient counselor for young people with amputations,” he said. “I wanted to show them, hey, amputations are not like a death sentence. You will have no limitations. You will get a new leg and you are going to do whatever you want with your life.”

Hetrick, who’s known Pleban since high school, told TODAY.com she’s been inspired by her boyfriend’s message.

“It’s amazing just seeing how positive he is, and how he doesn’t let any of this stop him from doing anything,” she said.

Joe's girlfriend Johnna Hetrick pretends to shoot his leg off with a paintball gun in Maryland.
Courtesy of Joe Pleban
Joe's girlfriend Johnna Hetrick pretends to shoot his leg off with a paintball gun in Maryland.

Pleban thanked his own mentor, Tony Meehan, for helping him endure the emotional and physical tolls of the surgery and its aftermath. Meehan also has an amputation below the knee.

“He’s been instrumental in this process,” Pleban said. “He has really helped me through it. He told me what to expect, what to look for. He’s (played) a big part, because he has his prosthetics, and he’s able to do whatever he wants, and he’s only a year out (of surgery).”

Joe is pictured supporting the USA men's soccer team in the World Cup in the hospital after his surgery.
Courtesy of Joe Pleban
Joe is pictured supporting the USA men's soccer team in the World Cup in the hospital after his surgery.

Despite the confidence he had in his decision to amputate, Pleban admitted he’d been anxious about it.

“I knew it was the right thing to do, but the fact that it was such a major surgery, and such a life-altering event, you’re going to be nervous,” he said. “I sat there in pre-op, and my heart was beating out of my chest, because I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is really happening.’ When I woke up from the surgery, I really expected to look down freak out, but, surprisingly enough, I looked down, I saw there was no foot, and I was like, ‘OK, I’m not freaking out.’ ... It could have been the drugs, to be honest, but since then, I’ve felt good about it.”

Dr. Christopher Attinger, the surgeon who amputated Joe's leg, poses for a photo as Joe wears a fake beard that he'd goof off with at the hospital.
Courtesy of Joe Pleban
Dr. Christopher Attinger, the surgeon who amputated Joe's leg, poses for a photo as Joe wears a fake beard that he'd goof off with at the hospital.

Pleban said his surgery at Georgetown University Hospital was a success, and his leg does not appear to show any signs of the disease that had plagued him for years.

“I haven’t regretted it once,” he said. “I feel great about it. The stump is healing up very nicely.”

Hetrick said sharing the experience with Pleban has strengthened their relationship, now in its sixth month.

“He’s got such a great attitude,” she added. “Yeah, there’s been some really tough parts, when he’s been in a lot of pain, but overall, we’ve had fun. We’ve goofed off, and we’ve just been us.”

Joe shared this photo as "proof" for his Ask Me Anything on Reddit.
Courtesy of Joe Pleban
Joe shared this photo as "proof" for his Ask Me Anything on Reddit.

With the approval of his doctor, Pleban plans to start getting fitted for a prosthetic Monday. And, thanks to users of the webpage Reddit, fans of his story already have chipped in via a Crowdtilt campaign to pay for a prosthetic leg cover.

“It’s probably the coolest thing ever,” he said with a laugh. “I was blown away. ... It’s crazy to me that people would donate to a stranger they don’t know. It’s awesome, and I could not be more grateful.”

Pleban said he plans to start running, snowboarding and playing rugby again soon, even if doctors advise him to be patient with the rehabilitation process.

“I know I’m probably not going to listen to ’em, and end up running as soon as that thing goes on my legs,” he said with a laugh. “But I have asked every prosthetic (expert) and my doctor, and they’re sure I’ll be able to play in this thing, so I plan to wear this thing out as quickly as possible. I’ve lived with limitations before, and I don’t want to live with them anymore.”

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