Joshua Beneze’s personality and intellect have re-emerged, to the delight of his friends, family members and co-workers at the Illinois Community College Board in Springfield.
But the 34-year-old state employee, who suffered a stroke in November during a work-related, out-of-town trip to Rhode Island, still faces many challenges in his recovery.
“I’m OK,” he told The State Journal-Register last week at a nursing home in Lincoln, a day before he was discharged. “I’m not happy-go-lucky. But I’m optimistic. I try to be cheerful when I can.”
Beneze, a popular employee at the state agency who said he used to be more carefree, now speaks almost in a whisper because of the stroke’s impact on his vocal cords.
He survived with the help of a surgical procedure at a Rhode Island hospital in which a portion of his skull was removed and a port inserted to relieve brain swelling and drain fluid.
He said he would like to return eventually to his job as the community college board’s associate director for adult education and workforce. But first he needs to make sure his health is stable so his recovery can accelerate.
“I’m improving a lot faster than a lot of people thought I would,” said Beneze, who was born in South Korea and grew up in Dwight, Kankakee and Vandalia. “I don’t have a timeline. It could be months and months, if not a year or more.”
Beneze (pronounced “ben-eh-ZEE”) was weaned off a ventilator during his almost four-month stay at Symphony of Lincoln. Before that, he spent a month at Vibra Hospital of Springfield, a long-term, acute-care hospital where he was brought after stays at two Rhode Island hospitals following the Nov. 14 stroke.
But because the stroke left him unable to swallow, Beneze, a bachelor who used to enjoy cooking pasta dishes and baking cookies, no longer can eat. He must be fed through a feeding tube to his stomach.
He has lost 80 pounds during the ordeal. Standing 5 feet 10 inches tall, he now weighs 246 pounds, he said.
He frequently has to clear his throat and cough up phlegm.
Worst of all, he said, he constantly feels dizzy — a situation that interferes with ongoing therapy to strengthen his weakened left side so he can start walking again and not depend on a wheelchair.
He hopes to get access to specialty care for the dizziness — through a neurologist, perhaps — now that he has moved in with his father and stepmother at their home in southeastern Montgomery County.
His father, John, 57, is a retired Vandalia Correctional Center officer. They all live in a rural area near Fillmore, a village of 260 people that is almost a 90-minute drive from Springfield.
Beneze also hopes to begin therapy to learn how to swallow again so he can eat regular food.
So many hurdles stand in the distance, but each step achieved in his recovery has been inspiring for his co-workers, according to Samantha Brill, 28, a regional associate director for adult education and literacy at the community college board.
“He’s made a lot of progress,” said Brill, one of several college board employees who has regularly visited Beneze. She and two others oversee a GoFundMe page and a Marine Bank account that collectively have received about $13,400 in donations on Beneze’s behalf.
“Neurologically, he’s there,” Brill said. “We’re trying to move on to the next steps. He’s not completely Josh yet.”
About a dozen of Beneze’s co-workers have donated enough of their unused sick days and personal days to ensure that he remains on the payroll, receives his $41,760 annual salary, and retains his state employee health insurance at least through the end of April.
Brill said she and other friends of Beneze are helping him apply for Social Security disability benefits and the Medicare coverage that eventually could come with those benefits.
Beneze also may try to extend his work-related health insurance beyond April through a federal law called COBRA, but paying for that coverage would cost him a lot more than what he pays as a state employee. That’s where donations to the GoFundMe page could become essential, Brill said.
The fund already has helped pay deductibles and other out-of-pocket health costs not covered by insurance, Brill said.
No one predicted such a young man would have a potentially deadly stroke, Beneze said, though stroke was mentioned by his doctors among a list of potential complications related to heart disease after he had coronary artery blockages cleared and two stents inserted in 2012.
Leading up to the November trip, additional risk factors for Beneze included the fact that he was a smoker, had Type 2 diabetes and was carrying excess weight.
He said he remembers driving in Rhode Island the day of the stroke, then feeling dizzy, pulling the rental car into a gas station early in the afternoon Nov. 14 and falling out of the car after it stopped. A passer-by alerted a gas station attendant who called emergency responders.
Beneze blacked out and remembered waking up the next day in a hospital room with his mother, Ok Cha, and his best friend, Drew Jenkins of Springfield, at his bedside. Glimpses of other memories remain from the next several weeks, including the uncomfortable feeling of the breathing tube down his throat.
Compared with that period, his outlook nowadays is more positive, though he has gotten upset at times about his situation and the long road ahead.
“It’s periodic,” he said. “It lasts an hour or two. I cry it out. I talk it out, and I’m fine. I’ve not had any depression — no deep sadness.”
What really brings him to tears are thoughts of his colleagues at the community college board sacrificing their time off when they donated those days to him.
Beneze broke down and cried when asked his reaction to it.
“I’m extremely grateful,” he said. “I had no idea they cared so much.”
To pass the time and keep his mind occupied, Beneze has been watching a lot of TV, crocheting hats and berets, and putting together 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles. He said he taught himself to crochet five years ago and has been interested in puzzles for years.
He has received more than 150 letters and cards of support, many from people he never met who read or heard about his plight and mailed them to the board at 401 E. Capitol Ave., Springfield, IL 62701.
He had a message for his friends and the rest of the public:
“Thank you. It’s woefully inadequate. But the only thing I can think of is, deeply from the heart, thank you.”
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April 30, 2017 at 10:26AM