Joe Benintende is standing tall.
For those who don’t know him, Benintende seems ordinary enough. He has one distracting accessory: lime-green, nearly fluorescent tennis shoes. But beyond the amused glances of anyone who might think his glaringly bright shoes are more befitting a teenager, the shoes have special meaning.
Reminiscent of an earlier Joseph in the Biblical story about the young leader’s “coat of many colors,” Benintende’s nearly glow-in-the-dark shoes carry significance.
“When I bought these shoes, I was in a wheelchair,” Benintende said. “I never said anything to anyone, but I told myself I wouldn’t wear these shoes until I could put them on and walk.”
“Look at me now,” he said, a smile spreading across his face.
Walking the walk, talking the talk
Seven years ago, after sustaining injuries in a brutal car crash, Benintende didn’t think that he’d ever stand – or walk — again.
While at a stop sign on a Sunday afternoon, right after church, Benintende was slammed by a drunken driver. The other driver, who had nine DUIs, was uninjured. Suffering from facial injuries and his spine severed, Benintende received life-saving care at Birmingham-area hospitals for two months. Unable to walk, he spent seven years in a wheelchair.
“Four inches of my spine is gone,” Benintende said. “My doctors didn’t believe I’d ever walk again. But I never lost hope.”
Fast-forward to 2016, when Benintende began hearing stories from friends about paraplegics who were able to walk again after receiving therapy from Pinellas Park, Florida-based massage therapist, Ken Bryant. Benintende decided to take a chance on the treatment, driving his wheelchair van to Tampa.
Considered unorthodox by much of the medical profession, the treatment reawakened the nerve communication in the muscles of Benintende’s body. For seven years, he’d had no feeling from his chest down.
“My one word for it was exhilaration,” Benintende said. From that time on, Benintende – so excited to have feeling again – spent every spare moment exercising.
“The sense of being able to feel my legs again, see a measure of movement was thrilling. I want that for other people,” said Benintende, whose last name, notably, means good intentions in Italian. “I want other people who are in the position that I was in to be able to be treated and to walk again. People get trapped in a wheelchair, unable to move. I want to help other people know there’s help, to know there’s treatment available.”
Following months of intense, daily exercise, Benintende strengthened the core of his body, down to his ankles, to the point where he could stand and, eventually, walk. There wasn’t a day that Benintende missed his work-outs at the YMCA in Birmingham.
People began learning about Benintende’s story and, a few times, visitors showed up to see him at WorkPlay in Birmingham, where he was general manager.
“You’re the guy, you’re real,” some customers told Benintende when they recognized him. “We wondered if you were for real.” Benintende assured them that his story was authentic. He is now an event planner and concert promoter of a music festival planned for summer 2018 in north Alabama.
In April, at Benintende’s urging, Bryant flew to Birmingham to help five paraplegics whose families had contacted him. All were paralyzed in accidents during the past four years: A gas mogul who lives in Vestavia was hurt on a motorcycle; an insurance agent was immobilized after an ATV fell on him; an 8-year-old boy was left a paraplegic by a car crash; and two women had been immobilized by accidents.
Benintende had no idea he’d get blessed in the process of helping others. Around 11 p.m. on April 23, after Bryant had spent his day treating two patients, he met and talked with Benintende. Noticing that Benintende was hunched as he walked, Bryant thought that Benintende still had a small, paralyzed area in his back. It took Bryant all of 5 minutes to treat his lower back, allowing Benintende to rise to his full, 5’8” height.
The ultimate uplifter
Benintende has a unique energy, a way of talking with people that enables him to transfer his enthusiasm, said his personal physician and friend, Dr. Duane King.
When King’s longtime patient walked into his office one day – without the help of a walker or wheelchair – the Birmingham physician was as stunned as anyone.
“I didn’t know what to think,” said King, a family practice specialist.
Always a naturally outgoing personality, Beinintende has never minded telling others that he used to be wheelchair-confined: He tells everyone he meets.
“I know this is amazing that I’m no longer in a wheelchair,” he said. “I can’t keep this to myself, when other people need help. I want to see other paralyzed people be able to walk again.”
When he was confined to the wheelchair, nearly every day, he sought the peace of Aldridge Gardens in Hoover. To onlookers, he may have seemed the quiet type but, internally, pain and frustration raged.
On pretty days, Benintende said, “I’d get my chair under the trees. There’s a little brook near a bench – this was my getaway place. It was close to where I lived. I’d come here to meditate.” Situating his wheelchair close to a babbling brook, Benintende would allow the quiet to envelop him as he listened to the gentle sounds of water playing over the smooth, gray stones of the brook.
“I used the sight and sounds of the brook, and visualized sitting in the cool water, imagining as the water ran over my body, it removed all pain,” he said. Benintende finally reached that place in October 2016, the day he met Bryant for treatment.
Finding the way to hope
About three years ago, Bill Miller, a Birmingham financial adviser who has a home in Bluff Park, was paralyzed in a side-by-side ATV accident. He and his wife of more than 30 years, Donna, were at their farmhouse in New Hope, 20 minutes south of Huntsville. Miller had gone to a neighbor’s farm on a Friday night, Dec. 5, 2015, when it began to rain. He decided to take a familiar trail through a cotton field. The wheel of Miller’s Kubota ATV slid off the trail and into a culvert, flipping the utility vehicle. Miller broke his neck and damaged his spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed.
Donna Miller called his phone to no avail. Finally, she called her cousin and a neighbor, who went and found Miller. He had lain in the rain-filled culvert for 3 1/2 hours. While recovering, Bill spent five weeks in Huntsville Hospital and nine weeks at the Shepherd Center in Altanta, one of the nation’s top rehabilitation hospitals for spinal cord and brain injury.
Since then, the Millers’ life hasn’t been easy. Because Miller works in insurance, his family was more financially stable than some who suffer a devastating accident. But doctors provided little hope for his recovery. Miller continues medical treatments and physical therapy at the Shepherd Center and at HealthSouth Lakeshore Rehabilitation Hospital in Birmingham.
But saving grace came one evening in September 2016, when Donna Miller received a Facebook message from Miller’s cousin, David Cole, a Pelham resident.
“David sent me a story about Joe that was on Facebook,” Donna said. “I read it, and was like – OK. Bill was in bed, and I stayed up until 3:30 in the morning, reading everything I could. I was trying to find out exactly what this was – I called Bill’s administrative assistant, Cristy Flournoy. She got right on it that night. She said one of her very good friends had worked with Joe.”
“Cristy told me, ‘This is a legit story,’” Donna Miller said. “We have all these mutual friends who knew Joe. I told Bill, ‘We need to have a serious discussion about this.’ We had just discussed his injury and treatments the day before. Bill was researching to find out if there was any help to be found.” From there, Flournoy contacted Benintende, who called Miller to discuss the treatment.
“We had an appointment with Ken two to three weeks later,” Donna Miller said.
After treatment, Miller saw significant improvements.
“I got my back muscles and abdominal muscles restored,” he said. “I’ve been able to get much more movement in my shoulders. Ken has helped me to be able to put my legs up in a sling and move them from side to side, which I was not able to do at all before I saw Ken.”
“Before, he couldn’t feed himself,” Donna Miller said. “He could barely lift his arms before Ken treated him. He can move his wrists now, and he has feeling in his body that he didn’t have before. He can put his arms out, and he has actually held a protein bar in his hand to eat it – he couldn’t do that before. He can hold a glass and drink with a straw.”
To the average person, these are small things but, for the paralyzed, being able to perform everyday tasks feels like an Earth-moving feat.
“These little things he can do now mean the world,” Donna Miller said, with tears in her eyes. “His upper-body movement is improving. A couple of nights ago, I realized he can pull the covers down or up if he’s cold. He used to have to get me to do that. It’s made such a difference. Bill’s upper body extremities have improved, and we’re hoping to get lower body extremities with the exercises that we’re doing now. We’re seeing – slowly – positive things there, that we hope will grow into bigger ones.”
Her husband’s attitude about life has changed along with his ability to function.
“Joe has helped immensely,” Donna Miller said. “For the first time, there’s hope. People in this situation lose hope. Doctors had told me that he’d never speak again, eat again, talk again. Joe is someone who has taken the time to give us hope.”
“The main thing that Ken Bryant gave me was hope, and the desire to keep trying to improve on a daily basis,” Bill Miller said. “That hope – I give all of that benefit to Ken.”
The ‘comeback kid’
The most special part of Bryant’s visit, Benintende said, was getting to work with “a really cool 8-year-old named Hayden Hulsey,” a quadriplegic for three years because of injuries from a car accident.
Benitende and King, with Hulsey’s parents, watched the boy’s two-hour treatment. King sat in a corner, viewing the entire process as Bryant’s assistant, Tina Crombach, helped maneuver the child. Hayden needed a ventilator to help him breathe, and it was sometimes necessary to remove the equipment to do the exercises.
“The treatment has completely stumped Dr. King,” Benintende said. “He understands that it works, in principle, as he has been one of my doctors from way before my accident, during the injury and after, and has tried his best to understand how I can do what I do now.”
“I don’t touch any part of the body except the back,” said Bryant, who has worked in the medical field for more than 20 years. “I take my hands and lay them on the back. I don’t use any pressure points … I put my hands on the muscle, it takes generally about five minutes. Starting with the back muscles, it goes up the back, down the back, around the sides, and into the stomach, and into the abdomen. Then it will go through the left leg and through the right leg.
“After about five minutes, we have the client do things they couldn’t do before, which would be tightening the abdominal muscles or straightening their lower back,” said Bryant, who owns Ken Bryant LLC, Paralysis Recovery Center. “When they are able to do those two things, then the back and the abs are back on. For a paraplegic, we’ll hold their leg out to the side and tell them to bring their leg in. No matter how many years it’s been, it doesn’t make any difference – all of a sudden you’ll feel the legs begin to move and they’ll jerk about four times, then all of a sudden, the leg will kick in. All of a sudden they will begin to adduct their leg, and then we have them adduct their leg and put it on a suspension system, which is nothing more than a sling and a cord so that people can see that nobody’s touching them, and everything they do is all voluntary muscle control.”
Afterward, Bryant puts the patient on a leg-curl machine so that they can move their legs and use weights, all while being able to see that no one is touching them. From there, Bryant continues with the set program.
“When people come, we know exactly what will happen,” said Bryant, who called his ability to reawaken nerves and muscles ‘a God-given gift.’
“We run a 100-percent-success rate, with over 880 people treated,” he said. “We haven’t seen this not work yet. Once the movements come back, they won’t go away. All you have to do is continue to move, and to get stronger. Joe is a prime example of people who get their muscle movement back, and they continuously move and get stronger. They have to work out seven days a week. … You have to go to the gym using regular weight equipment.
“Now that you can move again, you’re primarily not paralyzed,” he said. “You have the ability for voluntary muscle movement. The seven days a week include exercises we give you so you can physically sit and move your leg back and forth … using your muscles to stand up, anything you can do to use your leg muscles, but it has to be done seven days a week.”
The Hulseys are thrilled their son no longer requires the neck piece on his wheelchair to sit up straight. Drew Hulsey said that his son was unable to do that before treatment.
Pointing to Hayden’s left arm, he said, “This arm did real well … it’s never really been this straight. And his hands, too — they are always curled up, real tight. Now they’re not curled up, they’re loose. He’s just doing great. And Ken, this guy is really the truth, it ain’t no joke. I think he’s going to continue to get better. We’ll take it one day at a time …” Drew Hulsey said. The boy’s mother, Taylor Hulsey, agreed her son is “off to a good start.”
Taylor asked Hayden, “Are you feeling anything new?”
“A lot of things, already,” Hayden Hulsey said, flashing a happy smile. “And when I do a little more, I might do some more things.”
It wasn’t that long ago, Benintende said, that he was almost in the same shape as Hayden Hulsey.
“I was a paraplegic, as opposed to a quadriplegic, which is considered waist down or neck down,” Benintende said. “But just a year later, look at me! This is why, since receiving this treatment, I have fought every way possible to find a way this treatment can be applied to as many people as possible. Think about it: 500,000 people suffer from this, and until this one procedure came forward, nothing, absolutely nothing, has been able to treat, improve, much less heal these horrific injuries. This is why I have to get the word out, someone has to do this.”
Benintende told Hayden Hulsey, “Good job. You have to be brave, but you don’t have to be super brave.”
“I’m so excited for him,” he said. “Within a few days, Hayden was able to remove his ventilator, move his arms, breathe on his own and talk without his ventilator. I watched him move both legs for the first time since being paralyzed.”
“Words cannot describe the compassion, love and unselfish service I witnessed and experienced this entire week from the people I call my friends and family, not just with Hayden, but the other adults who received the exact same treatment and results that Hayden did,” he said.
“Because of God, four people’s lives have been completely changed and they now have a second chance at life,” he said. “God is really good.”
Helping others overcome
Benintende knows the difficulties of recovering from major setbacks. He is open about the his hard-won battle against alcoholism.
“It’s a fight you fight every day,” he has said. He took steps to fight the disease, and is a founding staff member of Bradford Health Services. Many substance-abuse experts believe there’s not much difference between being entrapped by drugs or alcohol; for that reason, Benintende refused opiate-based pain medications while recovering from his debilitating automobile accident.
“The risk to my sobriety – to my life – was too much,” Benintende said.
For about 10 years, Benintende has served as a sponsor to those taking part in a 12-step program. He attends the Recovery Church at Bessemer. Pastor Bill Crosby said that Benintende is vocal during meetings, often serving as a sounding board for others.
“I know at least one person, a young man who Joe was sponsoring, who Joe took under his wing,” said Crosby, who drives 35 miles from his Hoover home to lead chapel services at Bradford Health Services’ drug and alcohol addiction treatment facility in Warrior.
“He’s spoken up as a leader at meetings. People know Joe,” said Crosby, a former Baptist preacher from Kentucky who, during the past several years has worked to assist the United Methodist church. “He’s very outspoken about the struggle. I was in a meeting just last night and saw him there. Addiction is no respecter of persons: It’s not a respecter of age, sex, or job. It can ruin your life.”
That is Crosby’s truth: As a recovering alcoholic, he battles with his internal struggle every day. Benintende was one of the people who showed Crosby it was possible to escape from his despair.
“Joe has been part of my own recovery,” said Crosby, who received his Doctor of Ministry from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1987 and has served on the board the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. “I’ve been seeing him, knowing of him since eight years ago, this July. Joe was in a wheelchair at a meeting when I first saw him. But he was still at the meetings talking about hope.
“I said, ‘If he can do all this right now, I can, too,” Crosby said. “I’ve got two legs that work right now.”
A life with the makings of a movie
With his steely blue eyes and thick, graying hair, at least one person thinks that Oscar winner Tom Hanks is a doppelganger, of sorts, for Benintende.
So says Marti King Young, a Nashville-based screenwriter who is writing a screenplay about Benintende’s life story, which she hopes will be picked up by a major film studio.
Young contacted Benintende in April after hearing about his story. Since then, Young has flown to the Magic City several times to interview Benintende’s family and friends.
“I think that Joe’s life story has all the elements of a fantastic movie,” said Young, owner of Illuminating Talent agency in Nashville. With more than 10 years of experience in production, directing and casting, King has numerous screenwriting credits for short films such as The Alabaster Phoenix and has connections with Paramount Pictures.
“I’d like Tom Hanks to play Joe,” said Young, who earned a film studies degree from Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “This would be the perfect role for Tom – I can just see it. With Joe’s immense gifts for helping other people, and the story about everything that has happened in his life, he is a positive, life-changing person that other people want to know more about and be like. His story just draws people in.”
No one was more surprised than Benintende when Young contacted him.
“This is such a huge surprise and a gift,” said Benintende, who recently met with the CEO of a nationwide healthcare group to discuss offering Bryant’s treatment to paralytics across the country. “Hopefully, this will allow many paralyzed persons who so far have been told there is no way to move again, to actually move and maybe walk again, like I have. Someone mentioned this is maybe a God thing. No, it definitely is a God thing.”
The inspiration continues
Since their first meeting, Benintende and the Millers have become fast friends. Benintende has accompanied Miller for his physical therapy sessions at HealthSouth Lakeshore Rehabilitation Hospital, helping his friend stay on track with physical training designed by Bryant.
Benintende talks with Miller almost every day, to give advice and discuss his friend’s progress. On a recent excursion to Aldridge Gardens, Benintende encouraged the couple, then strolled around the 6-acre lake with Bill. Donna was happy to relax to the sights of nature while her husband and Benintende talked. Donna said she’s getting more rest since Bill’s treatment and, indeed, feels much more hopeful about what the future holds for their family.
“Bill may need to get some of those green tennis shoes.”