Some people are affected by an illness and never recover. Others are constantly defined by their illness or disability. This is a story of Rich McAllister, a man who falls into neither of those categories. Rich’s story is one of inspiration and the importance of family.
To begin the journey we need to go back to Jan. 26, 2008. McAllister’s father had just passed away and he was flying from Florida to New Jersey with his father’s remains. It was flu season and, like most Americans, McAllister knew that traveling on a plane would only increase his chances of catching the virus.
“About halfway or so into the flight I got a chill. Then I got another one, then another. I got very cold and thought that I was either getting a cold, the flu, or food poisoning. I had never even heard of the word sepsis,” McAllister said.
Thinking he had contracted one of these common viruses he went home to rest. During the night his wife, Lisa McAllister, noticed his breathing was shallow and forced.
“The next day I woke up and had a 106 degree fever and could not move. It was then that an ambulance was called and took me to a hospital,” he said.
This would begin McAllister’s long journey battling sepsis disease, a severe illness where the bloodstream is overwhelmed with bacteria. According to MayoClinic.com, sepsis causes inflammation that creates microscopic blood clots that block nutrients and oxygen from reaching vital organs, causing them to fail. Every year only a very small percentage of Americans contract this disease.
During his illness he was treated in three hospitals (Clara Mass Medical Center, Jersey Shore Medical Center, and St. Barnabas Medical Center) and two rehabilitation facilities (Kessler Institute of Rehabilitation and St. Cloud Healthcare Center.) McAllister made an impact on everyone in these facilities with his remarkable strength and determination.
“In the first days, when his body was literally crashing from sepsis, we were told he would never survive the disease,” Gayle Niebart, McAllister’s sister, said. “Then we were told they had to amputate his legs. That was devastating. After that, we had two doctors tell us his arms had to amputated. We sought out every possible option, and received another opinion from a doctor who was also a family friend. This doctor was the one who gave us hope by telling us he could save Rich’s arms. The surgeries he went through were absolutely incredible.
The days were long and extremely stressful. It always felt like it was just a nightmare until you would wake up and realize it was real. However, as he recovered there were many days of joy and hope. I learned to enjoy everyday more and be happy for each and every day.”
He awoke from the coma in March of 2008, after missing out on three months of his life. From here he would face an uphill battle on a long road to rehabilitation.
As a result of the sepsis, Rich McAllister lost both legs, parts of his fingers, 60 percent of his throat, both thumbs, his lower lip, and the use of both hands. Even in spite of these physical transformations he remained strong. Throughout the treatment McAllister’s wife, Lisa McAllister, never left his side. She was his own personal cheerleader, encouraging him to make progress everyday.
“My family and friends have been nothing short of amazing in their help and support. Without them, you are reading about someone else because they saved me,” McAllister said.
“The most support I gave Rich was to be with him almost every day while he was hospitalized or in a rehabilitation facility. During those 496 days I also worked on rebuilding his home for him, his wife and his daughters. I washed him, brushed his teeth, brought him food, and most importantly was the best cheerleader I could be while he rehabilitated and learned to walk again,” Gayle Niebart said.
That support system is what encouraged McAllister to struggle through the pain and learn to walk again. You learn to walk as a child and never really stop to think about what you would do if you lost that ability. Rich McAllister came face to face with this grim reality. Once he began the grueling process to learn to walk again he faced another obstacle…pain.
Learning to Walk Again
“Learning to walk again was painful. Slow. Painful. Anxiety-filled. Did I mention painful,” he said. “I took five steps the first time I walked, and was in serious pain. I wondered if I could ever do this for a lifetime. It was a focused dedication with tangible results. It took me months, but I did learn to walk again. The loss of both legs is my most obvious challenge, yet at times it is now perhaps the easiest.
Today, walking is still a challenge, but I walk in the morning approximately a quarter mile just about every day for therapy. Stairs are a problem unless I have one or two people with me. I am constantly looking at the floors to ensure that nothing is in my walking path,” McAllister said.
Being able to walk again was a major accomplishment for him during his recovery. “The most important milestone was being able to walk on my own with no help when I went home. After I was home, another milestone was to complete a 5K walk-a-thon, which is 3.1 miles and I have completed several of them,” he said. He took those monumental steps out of his final rehabilitation facility in July 2009. After 496 days in rehabilitation and hospitals, 22 surgeries, $15 million in health bills, and a home renovation.
While McAllister was in rehabilitation his brother-in-law, David Niebart, and Gayle Niebart spearheaded the renovation of his home. “We pretty much handled it like a couple would their own home – the wife researching and choosing the esthetics and the husband handling the more important construction aspects,” Gayle Niebart said.
The home underwent major reconstruction to accommodate McAllister’s needs. A new foundation was added for his bedroom, and a handicap accessible bathroom was added complete with a roll-in shower chair. “A kitchen table was specially made so I could drive up to it in my wheelchair,” McAllister said. The entrances were renovated to be handicap accessible, and ramps were made from patio pavers for each entrance way.
“A friend of ours completed the outdoor work with beautiful patio and front walkways that you would not even realize was handicap accessible,” Gayle Niebart said. “Everything we planned was about Rich being able to be comfortable while providing his girls’ with a lovely, comfortable home.”
Rebuilding a Life
Rich McAllister was always active in his community, so it was no surprise that he jumped back into that role once he returned home. He was known to juggle his career and family life, with an active role in the community.
Prior to his illness McAllister was a Senior Manager of A2iA, a company that provides recognition technology to help process items such as checks, forms and handwritten notes. When he returned home to begin rebuilding his life, McAllister had to step away from this position. This freed up time for him to become more active in community service projects in his community.
“When I first came home I rejoined the pastoral council at my parish, St. Catherine’s,” McAllister said. He also took on several community activist roles.
“I am a member of Cedar Grove Chapter of UNICO National, which is the largest Italian volunteer organization in America,” McAllister said. “I chaired the 25th Chapter Anniversary Dinner, head the publicity for the organization, compile all public items, and created the chapter’s website.
I am President of SHAG, the Self Help Amputee Group. This is an amputee volunteer support group and together we have become advocates for one another. We are not your standard issue, utility support group. With the ever-changing climate of need, technology and social change all meshing with one another, our group mission is quite clear. Provide up-to-date educational value, product and services information to our members so they can live a full, active and productive life as best as possible.”
Rich McAllister went above and beyond his roles in these organizations. Everyday he exposed the difficulties amputees face. “I lead by example. It is only inspirational if someone else is doing it,” he said.
He continued to share his experience with others online. Through his personal blog and website he wrote weekly from the perspective of being challenged. “I have designed and created four web sites, one for myself to show that even the greatest of obstacles can be overcome,” McAllister said.
Inspiring others became McAllister’s passion after a particular experience he had at Kessler Institute of Rehabilitation in West Orange, NJ. “My family is very social and everyone took an interest in us and we made a lot of friends, one in particular,” he said. “I looked at him and he was laying there and a balloon used in therapy was floating by us. He was paralyzed from the neck down from a car accident and I had no legs, no use of my arms, and we were both lying flat on the stretchers used to bring us in for therapy. The balloon was coming right at us and he’s saying ‘I got it’ and I’m saying ‘No, I got it’ and we were going back and forth laughing as it floats down between us. Neither one of us can move and it was crazy and we both knew it. It really was a moment best appreciated by those of us who literally could do nothing else but laugh—or cry.
At that time, I had no remote chance to move on and I was going for it. I also knew that given the chance, I would help anyone in this situation. Anyone. To this day I have kept that promise.”
The Road Ahead
To this day doctors are still uncertain about how McAllister contracted sepsis. “It is thought that I caught an airborne virus, but no one will every truly know what caused my illness,” he said.
Rich McAllister was a true inspiration to those facing a life threatening illness or in need of the courage to fight for their life. Ask anyone who knew Rich McAllister, and they will tell you he was a fighter. He continued to be a fighter even in the final days of his life.
On March 30, 2012 McAllister suffered a heart attack that left him in a coma and on a ventilator. He called his mom to check in on her rehabilitation progress at 6:15pm and was fine. Lisa McAllister returned home at 7 p.m. to find him unconscious. He was taken to Mountainside Hospital in Bloomfield, New Jersey where doctors discovered that sometime between his call to his mom and Lisa McAllister’s return home he suffered a heart attack, causing a blockage of his right main artery. Surgeons emergently removed the blockage and inserted a stent, but Rich remained unconscious. He was placed on a ventilator that evening, and in a 24-hour cool down with an 8-hour warm up the next day. The hope was that he would then regain consciousness with no brain damage. Unfortunately, this was not the case. He fought hard to overcome this new struggle, but on Easter Sunday (April 8, 2012) he lost his battle.
He leaves behind a remarkable story, loving family, loyal friends and inspiration for others to live everyday to the fullest.
“What could have been a very tragic story turned into one of inspiration and joy,” he said. “What has come through is an understanding, a transformation of sorts. I am the end result of many people who truly care. As you read this, you do not know whether my doctors, nurses, aides or therapists were black or white, Jewish or Catholic, Irish or Italian, rich or poor, republican or democrat. What you do know is that they cared. By my being able to do what I have done these past four years you KNOW that they care, as I am a by-product of that care. Together, these people of diverse backgrounds, education and interests have embraced the spirit and message of Christ; the single core value of the human spirit lives on, which is: On God’s good earth, HIS work must truly be our own.”
Rich’s story is one that will continue to inspire others to truly take hold of all the opportunities they are given, no matter how bleak the things may seem, to use them to the benefit rather than detriment of all, and believe in the power of faith. In his struggle he was able to bring many people together and inspire many to overcome their own struggles. We may never know how many lives he touched with his inspiration, but we do know that he will always be remembered by all who had the privilege of knowing him.