An Amazing Doctor, Paralyzed from the Neck Down, Runs a Long Island Rehab Center

updated 09/08/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/08/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Gwen Cesta, 25, remembers the first time she met Dr. Joseph Panzarella at the Brunswick, L.I. Rehabilitation Hospital: "I'd been on crutches for 12 months between operations on my right knee, which I hurt in an accident. I was really feeling sorry for myself—I wouldn't be able to date; I couldn't dance. I reached out to shake his hand. 'I'm sorry,' he told me. 'I don't have the use of my arms.' Boy, that put my problems in perspective!"

Panzarella, 61, who is paralyzed from the neck down, is far more than the hospital's resident morale builder. He is its medical director, a national authority on rehabilitation and an active physician who sees 20 patients a day.

His paralysis is caused by multiple sclerosis (MS), which struck while he was studying at the Long Island College of Medicine in 1943. A 1953 automobile accident exacerbated the disease, which can cause progressive deterioration within the nervous system. Yet his doctors were unsure if the growing paralysis was caused by MS or a spinal tumor. In 1954 they told Panzarella an operation would remove the tumor, if there were one, with full recovery possible. If MS was the cause, the trauma of surgery might worsen the paralysis. Panzarella gambled on surgery—and lost. No tumor was found.

He has lived in a wheelchair since. "I was depressed for a long time after the operation," he remembers. "After a while I realized that the more depressed I became, the more obnoxious I was. Finally I accepted what had happened. That's the hardest thing for any handicapped person to do."

Paralysis has not been Panzarella's only trial, however. In 1955 his wife, Jo, gave birth to stillborn twins. In 1959 Panzarella suffered the first of three heart attacks. In 1972, during the third attack, his son Jeff, 24, died in an auto accident while following his father's ambulance. Two years later his daughter Jacqueline developed the first symptoms of what proved to be MS.

His courage in the face of these tragedies, Panzarella says, is due to his devout Catholicism and to Jo, a childhood sweetheart he married in 1945. She typed all his medical school papers. She dresses and shaves him, uses a lift to move his 230 pounds from wheelchair to bed, and turns him every two hours to prevent bedsores. She also is the mother of his seven children.

The couple's youngest child, James, 18, was born "when Jo and I thought our child-producing era was over," Panzarella says. "Handicapped persons should have a healthy sex life to the best of their ability," he adds.

An enduring regret, Panzarella says, is that he has never been able to hold his seven grandchildren. "They seem to sense he can't," says Jo. "They come over very readily, feed him, hug him and turn pages for him."

Panzarella, raised in Brooklyn by Sicilian immigrant parents, has not always met such understanding, particularly among colleagues. Some doctors were openly hostile while he was finishing his M.D. and after he went into practice as an anesthesiologist. When the 1954 operation failed, Panzarella recalls, one of them seriously suggested, "Maybe you could learn to repair watches."

He in fact did not practice medicine for a year after the operation. Then, in 1955, he met Dr. Howard Rusk, a pioneer in rehabilitation medicine who accepted Panzarella as a three-year fellow in his clinic at New York University. Since then Panzarella has taught rehabilitation at the university's School of Medicine; won numerous honors, including the 1977 Presidential Award as Handicapped American of the Year; written a 1978 memoir, Spirit Makes a Man, and served as an adviser at seven New York hospitals.

He set up the Brunswick Rehabilitation Hospital in 1968. Assistants there do the manual part of his medical exams, but Panzarella, says therapist Julius Scotti, "can do a clinical diagnosis just by what he sees. And his assessments are right on the ball."

"My patients look and see that I'm a lot worse than they are," Panzarella adds. "I've been able to overcome it and that gives them hope for themselves."

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