Disability Awareness Month: Dr. Joe Hall

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       One of the most familiar faces in Waynesboro is undoubtedly Dr. Joe Hall…the physician, County Commissioner, father, grandfather, husband, and friend. Dr. Hall, known by many as simply “Joe,” has treated innumerable patients over the years with his shoot-it-to-you-straight style of explaining whatever ails you in precise detail and easing your fears with his calming presence. What many didn’t previously know, or at least weren’t fully aware of until he began using a motorized wheelchair most of the time, was that Dr. Hall was battling a debilitating physical condition that will unfortunately affect him for the rest of his life.

       The name of the condition affecting Dr. Hall is not something you hear every day. Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease was named for the three physicians who first identified it in 1886 – Jean Martin Charcot and Pierre Marie in Paris, France, and Howard Henry Tooth in Cambridge, England. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), it is one of the most common inherited neurological disorders, affecting approximately one in 2,500 people in the United States. Charcot-Marie-Tooth, or CMT for short, affects the peripheral nerves in the body that supply the muscles and sensory organs in the limbs. The neuropathy of CMT affects both motor and sensory nerves. Motor nerves cause muscles to contract and control voluntary muscle activity such as speaking, walking, breathing, and swallowing. A typical feature includes weakness of the foot and lower leg muscles, which may result in foot drop and a high-stepped gait with frequent tripping or falls. Foot deformities, such as high arches and hammertoes (a condition in which the middle joint of a toe bends upwards) are also characteristic due to weakness of the small muscles in the feet. In addition, the lower legs may take on an “inverted champagne bottle” appearance due to the loss of muscle bulk. Later in the disease, weakness and muscle atrophy may occur in the hands, resulting in difficulty with carrying out fine motor skills (the coordination of small movements usually in the fingers, hands, wrists, feet, and tongue).

       Dr. Hall was not officially diagnosed with CMT until he was well into adulthood, but says that after his diagnosis, he realized that he began experiencing symptoms much earlier in life. He says that no matter how much he worked out and developed his upper body muscles, he always had what he describes as “bird legs,” poorly developed muscles in his lower legs. Although that particular symptom alone is not enough to diagnose CMT, it can be an early indicator.

       The loss of sensation in Dr. Hall’s extremities from the CMT is what ultimately led to the amputation of his left leg below the knee. A few years ago, he stepped on an object that punctured his left foot, and was initially unaware that he was even injured, because he simply could not feel it. Even with many rounds of antibiotic treatment, the wound became severely infected to the point that amputation was essentially the best and only option.

       Dr. Hall has kept right on treating patients and serving on the Wayne County Commission throughout the progression of his disease, and says that although he has been forced to slow down, he has no intention of stopping. A serious accident in his pickup truck in 2017, when he broke some of the vertebra in his neck, was totally unrelated to his illness but yet added much more stress to his already-weakened body. As a man who has always taken pride in his physical condition, and always enjoyed physical activity, Dr. Hall easily admits that he has learned the hard way to swallow his pride and allow others to help him when help is needed. He says that his faith in humanity in general, and especially in his fellow Wayne Countians, has been strengthened immensely since his physical disability has become apparent and people are quick to offer assistance.

       Dr. Hall also says that his own physical problems have indeed given him more empathy toward his patients, and toward anyone suffering from a disability. As his patients know very well, Dr. Hall has always been a good listener, and attentive to their symptoms and complaints; but having physical disabilities of his own has certainly given him an enhanced perspective on being a patient himself. Transitioning from being the one administering treatment to the one receiving it is undoubtedly a difficult task for any medical professional; we have all heard the old saying, “doctors make the worst patients.” Joe Hall may just be a great example of a new variation on that old saying – maybe, in his case, “patients make the best doctors.”

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