Joseph Phleban of Fredericksburg, Virginia is a guy who likes adventure. Soccer, competitive swimming, football, wakeboarding, snowboarding, rugby, he did it all in his 23 years.
In 2008, the day after he graduated from college, Phleban injured his ankle for the umpteenth time while wakeboarding. He wasn’t too concerned about it, was quite used to it in fact, as he’d been plagued with painful ankle problems for 6 years – a side effect of being a daredevil.
He expected the surgery to repair his ankle to be routine, but surgeons discovered that Phleban had developed a rare disease called Pigmented Villonodular Synovitis. PVS usually affects the knee, but in about 2 percent of cases it appears in the ankle, causing inflammation and tumors in the joint lining. Phleban’s PVS was far advanced, with tumors, dangerous inflammation, and extensive bone and tissue damage.
Pigmented Villonodular Synovitis produces malignant non-cancerous tumors which damage cartilage, causing painful, degenerative arthritis.
Doctors performed a second operation to remove the tumors in Joe’s ankle, but they reappeared inside of six months. In 2010, Phleban underwent surgery yet again to remove more tumors, followed by radiation therapy. At that point, Joe’s doctors informed him that because his ankle had been so badly damaged, playing sports would be impossible. Phleban was crushed.
In March of this year, doctors ordered an MRI, which revealed that tumors had once again returned. His doctors recommended that they fuse the bones of the ankle, which would have meant periodic lifelong surgery and limited activity. Phleban didn’t care for that prospect, so he asked his doctors to amputate his lower leg. He figured he’d wear a prosthetic device and be able to do some sports afterward, and not be resigned to a life of surgeries, recoveries, walking boots, and canes.
In an interview with the U.K.’s Daily Mail Online, Pleban said, “Over six years I had to give up all of the sports I loved. Although taking my ankle away was a big sacrifice, the chance to regain the ability to play those sports again meant it was a no-brainer. It came down to either going through surgeries for a good portion of my life or have one surgery to end them all and be as active as I want on a prosthetic.”
And then he made a bucket list. A one-last-time run at unfulfilled adventures. All of it chronicled, from the point of view of his soon-to-not-be-there appendage, on a Facebook page called The Last Adventures of Joe’s Left Foot. Paintballing, go-karting, watersliding, a Caribbean vacation with his girlfriend, skydiving, and concerts. He even got a tattoo – a dotted line that wrapped around his intended amputation, with the words, Please Cut Here. Which he emailed to his surgeon.
In June, Phleban’s foot was amputated at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C. “Right before the surgery, I was definitely freaking out a bit,” he said. “It was such a ‘no turning back’ decision. But as soon as I woke up from the surgery and looked down, I knew I had done the right thing.”
Phleban shared at least one plan for the future. This Halloween, he’s planning to dress up “as a surfer, my girlfriend as a shark.”