Not taking it for granted

Jessica Rothschuh

Kent State graduate’s life-changing accident affected him and his family

Kent State graduate Joe DiLullo holds a neck brace he wore after falling two stories at a hotel in Hawaii last year. DiLullo says he will probably be recovering from the accident for the rest of his life.

Credit: Jason Hall

Last year, Kent State graduate Joe DiLullo didn’t think he’d be living in Ohio. He’d graduated from Kent State’s journalism school in August and flew to Hawaii a few months later to work for a Norwegian cruise liner. His plan was to see a little of the world as a junior waiter on the cruise ship and to pay off his college loans.

“It was right before the winter,” he said. “I really don’t like the winter.”

Hawaii seemed like a good place to be, and before he could start work, DiLullo found himself waiting for his medical records to catch up with him in a Best Western hotel in Honolulu with several other employees.

But his plans quickly changed.

“We got drunk,” he said simply of the life-changing decision he made that night.

He thinks he remembers being in the hotel hallway, carrying beer into a hotel room. He got the feeling he should hide it, as if he were a child, he said.

He doesn’t remember much more of that night, but he learned from other employees that he had said he was going to bed. He left his wallet and glasses on a table and walked out onto what he had thought was a balcony. He fell two stories, and a passerby found him on the ground below.

He had probably gone outside to smoke, as he often did before bed, DiLullo said. He still isn’t sure he fell from a balcony. A photo in the police report appears to show a half-balcony of some kind.

“Everything happens for a reason,” DiLullo said of his year-old accident. “Whatever that reason is, it’s beyond me, but it’s out there.

“It’s bizarre,” he said. “There was a big question whether or not I could take legal action. I never did.”

He never did, he said, because the fault is ultimately his own. He was drunk.

“When I first heard my alcohol content was 0.18, I was just thinking, ‘That’s not bad at all.'”

A blood alcohol content of 0.18 is about three times the legal driving limit.

Another police report photo showed an empty 12-pack, but some of the dozen were captured in a photo of the refrigerator.

Since the accident, he has only drank on three occasions, having no more than two beers on each occasion. While in the hospital, he also quit smoking.

It was not much of a choice. He couldn’t walk without a nurses’ aide on either side of him.

“I was completely out of it, so I couldn’t go outside,” DiLullo said.

He also couldn’t go home. He spent five weeks in Hawaiian hospitals, his mother and two of three older sisters flying out to be with him.

“I’m sure I’ve taken them for granted a lot of times, but they were there,” DiLullo said.

Joe’s mother, Sarah, recalls the first time she saw her son after the accident.

“They told me to be prepared because he looked pretty bad,” Sarah said. “He was out of it. He looked pretty nasty.”

Joe had a large knot above his right eye, and his eyes were dark from the impact. A feeding tube and other tubes coiled around him.

Teresa DiLullo-Hazlett, one of Joe’s sisters, had to stay in Ohio with her young child, so she kept her family and her brother’s friends updated on his condition via e-mail. She was surprised by the amount of e-mails she got back, some from people she didn’t know.

“I got e-mail from people that didn’t even really know Joey,” she said, recalling one from a group of nuns who were praying for her brother. “That was probably the most shocking e-mail I got.”

While nuns, friends and family prayed back home, DiLullo was in the hospital, learning to live again. Much of his rehabilitation took place in the Hawaiian hospital and consisted of nurses, doctors and his family asking him questions about where and who he was.

“It was like a drill, 20 times a day,” his mother said. “It was kind of scary because you are thinking, ‘Oh, how long is this going to last?'”

While the doctors reassured her his was a typical quick recovery, it felt like forever.

“He had no idea what a toothbrush and toothpaste were for,” she said. “He couldn’t hold a spoon to eat and when he did, it looked like a baby trying to use a spoon.”

DiLullo also was left with a fractured right wrist and a baseball-sized lump on his head from the impact.

Just over a year later, his wrist has healed, and physical, occupational and speech therapies helped erase the outward signs of lasting injuries.

“I got lucky,” DiLullo said. The 25-year-old Stow resident still has zero vision in his right eye because of optic nerve damage and both short- and long-term memory damage.

“Day to day, I remember new things that before, I know I didn’t remember,” he said. “I’ll probably be recovering for the rest of my life.”

When DiLullo returned to Ohio, he spent a week at Edwin Shaw Rehab in Akron before returning to his parents’ home and beginning four months of outpatient therapy at Akron’s St. Thomas Hospital.

His rehabilitation was difficult, consisting of physical, speech and occupational therapies aimed at improving both his mobility and his memory.

“I was happier to be done with those than I was to graduate from Kent,” he said smiling. “It just sucked to go through it, but it was worth it.”

His sister said he usually sounds and acts like the old Joey now, but he isn’t the old Joey.

“He’s still probably not 100 percent, but for the most part, he’s who he is,” DiLullo-Hazlett said. “He’s him, but different. Really, he’s one of the lucky ones.”

A year later, DiLullo has started a new job and is considering graduate school. When asked what he has learned from the experience, he paused.

“I guess I take less things for granted,” he said quietly. “I guess that would be the main lesson of it.”

His mother echoed his feelings, adding that most parents already know not to take life for granted.

“I spent five weeks in the hospital,” she said, her voice trembling with emotion. “That’s a long time. It taught me patience. And he fought, too. He didn’t know it, but he was fighting to get better.”

Contact news correspondent Jessica Rothschuh at [email protected].