Joe Pleban just couldn’t accept the doctor’s advice.
A rare bone and joint disease in his left ankle meant he would have to limit his activity and eventually undergo life-altering surgery. At least, that’s what a doctor told him a couple of years ago.
“He said OK to the doctor, and then he walked out the door and said, no way,” his mom, Lisa Pleban, recalled. “His entire attitude was, literally, ‘I am so screwed with this ankle that I am going to do everything I can, while I can, until I can’t do anything anymore.’”
Pleban, who recently turned 24, moved from Spotsylvania County to a relative’s cabin in Lake Tahoe, Calif., where he snowboarded, hiked and rock climbed. He also worked at a marina, ski resort and as a “VIP host” at a nightclub, where he met NFL football great Jerry Rice and other celebrities.
“It was so much fun,” said Pleban, who moved back to Spotsylvania in September 2013 after spending a year in California. “That year was, like, just awesome.”
Then reality struck.
In late June of this year, he had his left leg amputated below the knee after years of chronic ankle pain and disheartening doctor’s appointments.
Pleban could have easily fallen into a depression. Instead, he became an Internet sensation for his humorous take on the situation.
He and his girlfriend, Johnna Hetrick, 27, started a Facebook page about a month before the amputation titled “The Last Adventures of Joe’s Left Foot.” The page—which has about 13,000 likes—includes silly photos.
One shows his roommate, wearing a hard hat and jean shorts, holding a buzz saw to Pleban’s ankle. Pleban now teases the friend that he’s all over the Internet in cutoff jean shorts.
And the family took pictures of a tattoo he got on his left ankle that included a line and small scissors under the words “Please cut here.”
The pictures went viral in early July after Pleban’s sister posted a link to the photo album on Reddit, a popular Web community. Pleban went on to host an “Ask Me Anything,” or AMA, discussion on Reddit, where he says he received 500 comments in 30 minutes. It was the third most popular AMA in progress—behind live chats with Buzz Aldrin and Mike Tyson, Pleban said.
“That’s when I realized, holy crap, this is really popular,” he said.
Hosts of interviews followed, and Pleban’s story made it to The Huffington Post and other mainstream websites. A German TV show even featured him in a five-minute segment that included a stroll through downtown Fredericksburg and Pleban’s first walk in a prosthetic.
“Apparently, I’m a big thing in Germany,” he said with a laugh.
He said he can always tell when a country picks up his story by the comments on his Facebook page. “The story will hit a country, and I’ll get this flood of messages,” Pleban said.
Pleban was diagnosed with pigmented villonodular synovitis in 2010 after breaking his left ankle in a wakeboarding accident two years prior. The injury never properly healed, and a doctor discovered tumors in his ankle.
“From there, it was kind of downhill,” said Pleban, who says he’s had ankle issues most of his life.
He had three surgeries in three years and even underwent radiation. But the tumors kept coming back.
An orthopedic doctor told him he would need to have his ankle fused when he was 30. Six months later, Pleban decided to make a temporary move to Lake Tahoe.
“It was a depressing stage of his life,” his mom said. “He was like, ‘I just want to get out of here.’”
Pleban says his lowest point came during a family vacation in Vermont this past March. After just half a day of snowboarding, he went back to his room in excruciating pain.
He’d already had to give up other sports such as rugby, which he played for two years at Christopher Newport University. Snowboarding was all he had left.
“I was just … broken down emotionally,” Pleban said. “I was like, this is my one last sport. Don’t take this sport away from me.”
Pain medication carried him through the rest of the week.
After the trip, he made an appointment with a foot and ankle doctor at a Baltimore hospital. Again, Pleban was told that an ankle fusion was his only option and that the procedure would cause him to walk with a limp for the rest of his life.
That’s when the family asked about an amputation.
“That was a really tough doctor’s appointment,” Pleban said.
A few weeks later, he met with another doctor at Georgetown University Hospital. That appointment marked the first time Pleban told a doctor that he wanted an amputation.
“He didn’t even look at my MRIs,” Pleban said of the doctor. “He just heard what I’ve been through, and he goes, ‘Yep, that sounds right.’”
Pleban said the pain in his leg was similar to rolling an ankle—except he felt that way all the time. On bad days, it felt like someone was stabbing him.
He later found out that all of the cartilage in his ankle had eroded.
Pleban’s outlook took a decidedly positive turn after he and his mom had dinner with Tony Meehan, who had a below-the-knee amputation last year after a snowboarding accident in 2010. The Plebans found him through his aptly titled blog, Snowboarder vs. Tree.
After the dinner, Meehan walked down a flight of stairs. It was like he didn’t have a prosthetic.
It was the first time Pleban walked away from an appointment with hope, his mom said.
Dr. Carol Morris, chief of Orthopaedic Oncology for Johns Hopkins Medicine, said she’s seen just six patients with PVNS in their ankles. None had an amputation, she said.
She called Pleban’s decision to amputate a “bold move.”
“On a very intellectual level, it makes perfect sense to want to get rid of a problem entirely,” said Morris, who said ankle surgeries are fraught with complications. “It gives you a pain-free existence.”
Below-the-knee prosthetics, she said, are “quite frankly outstanding.”
“He can do anything. Kudos to him.”
After Pleban set the amputation date, he was determined to do as much as he could before the surgery.
He went kayaking, played paintball and took a family vacation to the Dominican Republic, where he parasailed and went scuba diving.
At the beginning of June, he told his girlfriend he was taking her on a wine-tasting tour for her birthday. So it was a surprise to her when they pulled up to Blue Ridge Skydiving Adventures.
“It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do, and it gave me less time to freak out about doing it,” said Hetrick, Pleban’s girlfriend.
He returned home from a music festival just two days before his amputation on June 25. He didn’t give himself time to worry about the surgery.
But on the day of the amputation, he was “freaked out,” he said. Meehan gave him company in the pre-op waiting area, where Pleban spit out questions as soon as they popped into his head.
“Were you freaked out when you first woke up?” Pleban asked his mentor.
“Does the epidural hurt?”
“Did you wake up at all during the surgery?”
BACK TO NORMAL
Pleban’s leg is now fully healed, less than two months after his surgery. The day he was fitted for his first prosthetic, a German TV crew filmed him as he walked out of the doctor’s office without crutches.
Meehan, who started running about six months after his amputation, said Pleban is “kicking butt.”
“The fact that he’s got such a great attitude is really going to help him recover,” Meehan said.
Meehan said he hasn’t gone snowboarding since his amputation. But when he does, he said, it will be with Pleban.
In fact, Pleban, who is an assistant swim coach at his alma mater, Fredericksburg Christian School, plans to return to a lot of activities now that his ankle problem has literally been severed.
He plans to try out for a local rugby team. He plans to run with his girlfriend in the mornings.
And he plans to fly a plane. Pleban earned his private pilot’s license during his senior year of college, but hasn’t been able to fly for quite some time because of his pain medication.
He also hopes to counsel other people who are considering or have had amputations.
Pleban knows that his Internet fame won’t last forever. What’s important to him are the relationships he has formed throughout the ordeal.
His mom mentions a father who said he couldn’t run with his children after eight unsuccessful ankle surgeries. The dad told Pleban that he planned to follow his lead so that he could run again with his children.
“It’s cool being popular,” said Pleban, who went bowling recently for his birthday. “It’s cool that people are interested.
“It’s also really good that I can get a different picture of amputation out there. Because everyone thinks of amputation as some last-resort death sentence, and it’s not.”
Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402