Ask any hockey player what his best hockey moment was and you’ll get a wide range of answers. Some may talk about a goal scored on a breakaway or a game winner in overtime, some may say it was the perfect open ice hit and someone who played goalie would no doubt speak about a miracle glove, pad or skate save. Ask Joe Rainer and he’ll tell you his best hockey moment was July 17, 2010 at noon…that was the exact time he was able to get back on an ice surface and truly reclaim part of his life. The twist: The ice was synthetic.
It has been an intense eighteen month journey for both Joe, 39 and his wife of nineteen years, Diane, 41 both from Neosho, Wisconsin. It’s been a journey filled with more valleys than peaks, lots of fear, anger and unspeakable frustration in dealing with both insurance and hospital red tape. To hear Joe in his calm manner and measured tone relate the story, you’d never get the sense of how close he came to actually dying.
“At the beginning of March, 2009 I had been having some visual distortion and balance problems but nothing too terrible, or so I thought,” he said. “So my wife made an appointment for me to see an ophthalmologist and the appointment had been scheduled for one o’clock in the afternoon. Back then I was playing adult open hockey three times a week and I had to leave the house at six o’clock in the morning.
“I got to the rink and got dressed but I couldn’t play. My vision was very blurry and because of that, my balance was thrown way off. Fortunately, the vision stabilized enough for me to be able to drive myself home and then Diane drove me to the ophthalmologist’s office.”
Not knowing exactly what was wrong, but knowing that something was definitely wrong, Joe and Diane were both very scared. It turned out that their fears were justified. With the first test that he conducted, the ophthalmologist was able to determine that Joe’s brain had swelled. He told them that because of the swelling, he was going to get Joe admitted immediately to a hospital in Milwaukee.
An hour later, Joe was admitted to a special ICU unit. He had a CAT scan done and then later a biopsy. He was also put on steroids to get the brain swelling to go down. The good news was that he didn’t have brain cancer; however he did have a tumor on his occipital lobe which is the visual processing center of the brain. The severe swelling of the brain also put extreme pressure on the optic nerve. The doctors at the hospital sent Joe home with prescriptions for six different medications totaling thirteen pills per day. They told him that he would undergo surgery to remove the tumor in approximately two weeks.
Joe and Diane went back home and got all of the medications needed. This would be the first of many instances where they received help and support, both financial and emotional, from their family and friends. At the time of the diagnosis, both Joe and Diane were unemployed and without medical insurance. They had worked together for a carpet cleaning business but due to the economic downturn; both had been laid off in November 2008.
Joe took the medications prescribed over the next two weeks and Diane called the hospital to make arrangements for the surgery. The two weeks passed, and then another two weeks passed. Frustrated and angry, they kept asking why the surgery was being pushed back; it was now the end of April, 2009 roughly seven weeks since he was taken to the ICU. Finally, they were told by the hospital that they could not perform the surgery due to Joe’s lack of insurance and financial instability.
Joe and Diane didn’t take this setback by lying down. Diane wrote letters to hospitals, different foundations, the Governor of Wisconsin and even the President of the United States. They explained the turn of events to their friends and family and a break came when one of Joe’s friends was able to make a connection and get Joe in touch with a neurosurgeon at a different hospital in Milwaukee. Here, Joe’s finances and lack of insurance weren’t an issue and the surgery was scheduled and performed immediately.
The surgery to remove the tumor from Joe’s occipital lobe was successful and he ended up spending ten days in the hospital. Returning home Joe, happy to be alive, still had to deal with the lasting effects of the surgery, which included the full loss of all peripheral vision and in and out forward vision. Still there were the mounting medical bills, his job prospects being dim because of the virtual loss of his eyesight and the stress on Diane being his full time caretaker.
Prior to the diagnosis Joe was seeking certification in the field of legal videography. He was, in fact, planning to travel to Denver to take the certification test. The trip had been planned prior to the ophthalmology exam. He had made flight reservations for three days after when the exam would take place. Fortunately, he did not get on the plane before the exam. Flying in his condition may have killed him due to the brain swelling.
Thankfully, they did receive some good news in June 2009. Both hospitals decided to waive all of their charges. According to Joe the hospital charges, combined, totaled over $300,000. Also, Joe was feeling good and during one of his follow-up exams with his neurologist, he asked if it would be possible for him to get back on the ice and suit up and play hockey. His neurologist said it would be OK, but that he had to be very careful and wear a very strong helmet. To Joe this was the equivalent of scoring a natural hat trick, he would get to be back on the ice doing something he loved, skating and playing hockey.
Much like seeing a lake in the desert, going back on the ice would turn out to be a mirage for Joe. Yes, he could get on the ice and skate, but trying to play without peripheral vision, limited forward vision and with severe balance issues all led to two very frustrating experiences for him. For the first time, post-surgery, he was truly disheartened and depressed. “I had been playing hockey for twenty years, it was always something that no matter what the circumstances, I could do and do well,” he said. “I was so excited leading up to playing those two times. Just smelling the ice before I went on was a huge thing. And then to have so much difficulty…it just turned out to be a disaster and almost made me wish I never went out there to start with.”
Joe’s immense struggles on the ice affected Diane as well. “To see him so excited and happy for the first time in a long time was great,” she said. “He’s a very even keeled guy and he had been through so much. So, I was so happy that he would have a chance to skate and play hockey and then to have it turn out to be such a disaster…it was just devastating. It was like one step forward and twenty steps backward.”
Even though Joe could barely see, he would still thumb through magazines and one magazine in particular that he liked was USA Hockey Magazine. While cleaning the living room early on the morning of May 19, 2010 Diane noticed an advertisement for a company named Global Synthetic Ice. Scanning over it she then took it over to the computer. She went to Global Ice’s website, read up on the company and wrote down the email address of Perry Boskus, the President of the company. She then quickly typed an email to him. She didn’t know then that this would be the first step in Joe getting an important and vital part of his life back.
The email read, “Hello, my name is Diane Rainer and my husband loves hockey and has played recreationally for 20 years, it’s a big part of his life. Anyway, he just was diagnosed with a brain tumor, which he had removed. However it caused lasting loss of all side vision and in/out of straight vision. This means no more “safely” playing of Hockey. I would love to get him some of your synthetic ice for him to still do what he enjoys. I however cannot afford this due to the large medical expenses we have from his brain surgery. Do you have any provisions for a donated unit like this in your company? If so, it would make his dreams come true. Thank you for your time in listening to this. Diane Rainer.”
“I read Diane’s note and I felt choked up,” Perry said. “I thought how I’d feel in this position. I would have a very hard time dealing with such a major loss in my life.” So, Perry wrote back and eventually talked to Diane on the phone. He put a plan in motion to send his personal sixteen-foot by twenty-four foot, twelve-panel rink to Joe and Diane at no charge.
According to Perry, he decided to donate the rink because he was so touched by Diane’s note and by everything Joe has had to endure. He also pointed out that he doesn’t donate rinks very often. “We are simply not in the position to give away rinks,” he said. “The only other time we donated a rink was to two figure skating sisters who wanted to take a rink around to hospitals and skate with kids that were not as fortunate as them. I felt they showed great initiative and so I helped them out. People can always look to sponsors to help with their own rinks.”
Diane was ecstatic and nearly in shock. She exclaimed, “I just kept thinking back on everything that we’ve been through and to hear Perry say that he was going to give us the rink at no charge…I couldn’t stop crying and I thought I was all cried out!” She initially thought about surprising Joe after the installation had taken place in their basement, but then changed her mind and decided to tell him.
“I was blown away. You just can’t imagine how much support and kindness we’ve received over the last year and a half. It’s very humbling…” Joe said as his voice trailed away.
The rink was shipped out by truck from Global Synthetic’s headquarters in Clearwater, Florida and it arrived in Neosho on July 16, 2010 in the late afternoon. The rink’s panels, made of the company’s Super-Glide® synthetic ice, were assembled in Joe and Diane’s basement in less than thirty minutes the morning of the 17th. When everything was ready to go, Joe came downstairs and put his skates on. As Diane and his family and friends looked on, Joe took his first, admittedly, tentative strides across the synthetic ice.
“I was a little antsy and had a few butterflies in my stomach at first,” he said. “Those first few laps I felt a little wobbly but after that everything came back quickly and it felt like old times. After about ten minutes I got my stick and a puck out and started stick handling and shooting and it just brought back a ton of memories. Everything about the rink and my ability to skate and play hockey on it exceeded my expectations.”
Diane added, “He skated for about forty five minutes and the good thing was he wasn’t out of breath. It was so great to see him smiling so much and I could tell how disappointed he was to have to come off the ice. He said he was like a kid in a candy store and he hadn’t filled up his bag of candy yet!”
“To be able to come down here to skate and play hockey and not have to worry about someone running me over or me crashing into them…” Joe added softly. “Even not having to have Diane drive me to a rink, I mean…there’s simply no way to say how much this means to me. After we found out about Perry giving us his rink, I found myself thinking, how many times or different ways can you say to someone ‘thanks for helping me get my life back.’”
Things will never be as they were before for Joe or Diane, but they are getting better. With technological advancements in computers and cameras, Joe feels he can get his legal videographer certification. He has already taken on several freelance videographer jobs and Diane has resumed working as well. Most importantly of all, Joe’s health prognosis is very positive.
During one of my conversations with Joe, I read to him a short passage from my book, “Hockey Player For Life” because I thought it applied to him so much. To me, he is the real life embodiment of the book’s fictional protagonist, Tom Leonard. At the end of the story, Tom says the following, “I learned a long time ago before I could let other things into my life…to have the opportunity to play hockey, anywhere at any time meant the world to me. To be playing the game made me feel alive and gave me the idea that I could do anything. It nourished my soul and fed my mind with infinite possibilities. I am a hockey player for life.” Thanks to the love and support of his wife, their friends and family and Perry Boskus, indeed, Joe Rainer is back to being a hockey player for life.