Editor’s Note: When athlete and fitness fanatic Joel Ellen started experiencing hip pain in his early 20s, he consulted numerous health practitioners in search of the root cause hoping to find some relief from the constant suffering. After years of trying several conventional and natural therapies to no avail, his doctor prescribed narcotics and muscle relaxers. This would eventually lead Ellen down the lonely path of substance abuse, troubles with the law, damaged relationships, and ultimately, the loss of his leg. Wheel:Life writer Betsy Bailey talked to him about how he picked himself back up and how he manages to stay positive when life doesn’t go as planned.
You went through some rough times. How did you start getting your life back on track?
I hit rock bottom when I was court ordered to rehab. I finally realized that the only choice was to start turning my life around. During my stay at rehab, I went back to school, found a job, and started repairing my relationships. Eventually, I graduated from rehab with flying colors. Over the next year, I still had to deal with a painful breakup, debt, being on probation, traveling using public transportation, and managing constant pain. Still, this was progress, and my life was turning around.
Despite moving forward, something was missing within the deepest part of myself. I still felt empty inside and could not forgive myself for all of the disappointment I caused to my family.
On March 3, 2017, I became a believer of Christ, and my life and perspective completely changed. I could see with fresh eyes and an open heart. For the majority of my life, I was an atheist who went to church to make my mom happy and to temple to make my dad happy. In being caught up in this religious tug-of-war, I ended up not believing in God or any religion at all. I lived this way until I met two very special people who showed me that faith and belief aren’t about religion, but about nurturing my personal relationship with myself, through God. I finally tapped into my spiritual self and began experiencing all of these revelations, miracles, and epiphanies. I felt a higher power around me, and that is the moment when my internal healing began.
You were turning your life around, but there was still more hardship to come. What happened next?
After an incredible year of recovery, hard work, and unimaginable success, I became overconfident in my healing and mental health. I thought I could drink socially without it affecting my life in a negative way. I began drinking on occasion without difficulty or consequence. One day was especially tough, though. I was depressed and in a lot of pain, so when I got home from school, I decided to drink the pain away. I ended up going on a two-day binge and woke up in the hospital attached to machines to keep me alive. Apparently, I passed out in an awkward position cutting off circulation and a blood clot formed in my leg. My body must have tried to wake me up by telling me that my foot had fallen asleep, but the warning never registered because I was intoxicated and passed out.
The ambulance took me to the hospital on August 31, 2017, and I woke up a few days later on life support. I had no idea why I was at there. I do remember waking and looking around, seeing machines hooked up to my body, and doctors and nurses in the background. I was told that I had almost died and that I had tubes and other devices hooked up to my body allowing me to breathe, eat, and empty waste. While I do not know the exact sequence of what happened, the paperwork says that I had a high anion gap metabolic acidosis, lactic acidosis, acute renal failure, rhabdomyolysis, traumatic compartment syndrome of right lower extremity, acute embolism and thrombosis, hyponatremia, transaminitis, hyperglycemia, and above knee right leg amputation.
I was told that I would be on dialysis for the rest of my life.
My doctor and I agreed to try and see if my body could recover on its own, so he took me off of dialysis. I stayed in the hospital for two weeks as my body fought to lower its creatinine levels so that my liver and kidneys would function properly again. After a few weeks, my levels finally normalized, and I was discharged from the hospital.
Your Instagram is full of positive messages and motivational videos. How do you stay optimistic and avoid falling back into old patterns?
People ask me on a daily basis how I stay so positive and happy, and I tell them all the same thing. We all experience loss; mine is just visible for everyone to see.
In my eyes, I have a responsibility to put a smile on the face of anyone who looks my way.
The two quotes that always come to mind are, “You can be the victim of your story, or you can be the author of your story,” and, “with great power comes great responsibility.” When people look at me, I am a constant reminder to be appreciative of what you have. If I’m not smiling or having a bad day, they will look at me and feel sad. So, I choose to stay positive because I want people to feel inspired by me.
I have always been an athlete and regularly active; it is at the core of who I am. Losing my leg has obviously turned my world upside down, and I don’t know how I could have dealt with this in the past, but now that I’m a believer, my perspective has shifted. I have learned that there is always a silver lining.
It is my duty to turn this loss into a win, not just for my loved ones, but for myself.
One month out of the hospital, I decided to start exercising again. People around me were very inspired to see that even though my leg was gone, I continued to live the same active life I always had. I began telling my story and creating exercise videos on social media to share with whoever found value in them. I saw that my contribution helped others who were struggling with their own health, lives, and personal situations. I stay positive because of all of the people who follow me and tell me that I have helped them in some way. I don’t know what the future holds for me, but I do know that my purpose is to help and inspire others. There is nothing more important in life than giving back.
I thank God every day for clarifying my purpose.
Since I lost my leg, I have gained so much more power than ever possible, allowing me to be in service to those in need.
Was it difficult for you to get back into the gym? Do you feel like you had to relearn how to move?
I think my previous training in parkour, gymnastics, and tumbling prepared me for adapting to one leg. I was already doing so many things on one leg and always incorporating balance into my activity. I have adapted my upper body in strength and endurance, and I do therapy every day for my hips, glutes, and leg. Everything took practice and hard work, but it came pretty quickly for me because I’m in a position where I have all day to exercise, which is a lot more time than most people.
I noticed on Instagram that when you’re not training, you often use a wheelchair. Do you prefer a wheelchair over a prosthetic?
Due to my hip pain that remains undiagnosed, I usually don’t wear a prosthetic. Since I don’t have a car, I typically use a wheelchair to get around, and I find it very functional because I can also carry everything I need depending on where I’m going or what I’m doing.
Why would you say fitness and proper nutrition is important for the disability community?
I know several amputees who are in a lot of pain, are very weak, don’t do their therapy, and have inflammation and as well as negative attitudes. I was the same way when I had to go to the doctor’s and therapist every other day. Now that I am in control of my nutrition and exercise, I don’t do any mirror therapy, desensitization exercises, or as much stretching and icing for pain relief as before. My daily gym visits take care of everything. Food is the best medicine; eating organically and including a lot of superfoods has gotten me off four medications, and I experience very little phantom or normal pain.
What’s next for you?
I have a degree in kinesiology, and I just graduated from massage therapy and physical therapy assistant school. I’m not sure exactly what’s next, but I hope to do some motivational speaking and life coaching.
Editor’s Note: Joel Ellen’s life was flipped upside down with the loss of his leg, but that hasn’t stopped him from walking — on his hands! Check out how he does it on his Super Leg Instagram profile or Adaptive Joel on Facebook.
This article was extracted from written communication between Joel Ellen and Betsy Bailey and has been edited for length and clarity.
Amplitude Magazine provides valuable and unbiased news, information, and resources for amputees who want to live more fully, as well as articles and information relevant to their families and their caregivers. It offers content on a wide variety of topics, including peer support, active living, emotional issues, health and wellness, mobility, and adaptive living—anything that will help amputees enjoy all that life has to offer. Learn more at www.amplitude-media.com.
Betsy Bailey has a diverse background including experience in marketing research at American Express, business operations and client relations with 601am, travel and culinary writing with VegDining, and playing volleyball professionally overseas.
Betsy is excited to get back into writing, something she’s adored since childhood, and thoroughly enjoys the process of getting to know her interviewees. On top of her work with Wheel:Life, she also teaches students learning English as a second language, speaks French fluently, and travels any chance she gets!