Celeste's 10-year journey with pain ended with doctors who listened

Celeste Cocca knows how quickly life can change.

Her day in March 2001 started just like any routine morning for her as a single parent - she rushed to get her kids up and off to school, prepare herself for work and beat the traffic downtown to make it on time for her job at a local bank. However, her life was turned upside down in an instant on that winter, Cleveland morning as she stepped out of her car onto black ice, and fell to the ground. 

That split second marked the beginning of a 13-year ordeal of pain, multiple surgeries and her quest to get her life back.

As Celeste sat stunned in the street on the ice, trying to figure out what had just happened, she looked down and saw her foot and leg going in opposite directions. Instantly, she knew the ankle was broken. She was in shock and felt no pain, but was unable to stand to get out of the way of oncoming traffic. She thanks God that a co-worker was just behind her and helped move her to a nearby emergency room.

The next day, she had the first of what became 10 surgeries over 10 years to install rods and screws and fuse bones in an attempt to repair the destroyed ankle. None of the surgeries worked. Celeste lived in constant pain and found little understanding from her physicians of the nightmare she was living. It was as though they did not believe the constant pain she felt, like a knife sticking out of her ankle and stabbing her with even the slightest movement.

At one point, Celeste was told there was nothing more that could be done. She would just have to live with the pain the rest of her life. 

“I just sat in the doctor’s office and cried,” Celeste said. “It was horrible. Just like that, my life became about the pain.”

However, as a single parent, Celeste said “failure was not an option. I had to take care of my kids.” 

So, for 10 years she managed to work around the pain and find creative solutions, like sitting on a stool to cook dinner, to take care of her family. She struggled to get out of bed in the morning and, if she did any extra activity, she couldn’t move the next day. Celeste lived her life coming home from work every night to ice her swollen ankle and praying just to get through next 24 hours. Somehow her determination carried her through what needed to be done, miraculously never calling in a single sick day throughout those 10 years.

Then, fate stepped in around 2011, when a friend referred her to St. Vincent Charity’s Dr. Lou Keppler for a knee replacement she needed most likely caused by the body adjustments she was making to cope with her ankle pain. Seeing Dr. Keppler was the first time, Celeste says, that a doctor looked at her entire situation and acknowledged her pain.

“Finally, here was someone who saw my pain was real and not just imagined.” After knee replacement, Dr. Keppler believed there was something that could be done to help her ankle and referred her to Dr. Michael Canales for treatment.

Dr. Canales and Dr. Keppler literally gave me my life back.

“Dr. Canales was a God send,” she said. “He was the first doctor to look at my X-rays and understand what was causing my pain. He was the first to ever say out loud that my ankle was in trauma. He came up with a two-year treatment plan and gave me hope.”

As part of his treatment plan, Dr. Canales developed a short-term and a long term plan to bring Celeste relief. “I wasn’t going to eat the elephant in one bite. Both previous fusions had failed and every time a patient has an operation, the likelihood of success goes down.”

As a believer in communication as the cornerstone for the doctor-patient relationship, Dr. Canales quickly picked up on Celeste’s nonverbal cues regarding additional bone fusion surgery. Dr. Canales could see from Celeste’s body language that there was no way she was going down the fusion path a third time. So, he worked with her on a two-year plan, including removing hardware and prescribing a brace that Celeste said made her “look like a football player” to strengthen the ankle, and move her closer to a successful total ankle replacement surgery.

As her December ankle replacement drew nearer, Celeste prepared herself and her kids for the long recovery after such a major surgery. She warned her kids not to expect the family’s Christmas traditions – the homemade cookies and candies she made each year – following her replacement. She did not anticipate feeling well enough to do the things she had always done to make the holidays special for the kids. She expected the pain after her ankle replacement would be temporarily worse than the pain she had lived with since her fall.

After living all those years in daily pain, it was amazing. I could move again and I didn’t need any pain medications.

However, Celeste’s Christmas surprise came in what seemed like an instant, quickly changing her life again. Almost immediately after surgery, she was pain free.

“I felt so great- it was unbelievable. After living all those years in daily pain, it was amazing. I could move again and I didn’t need any pain medications. I was actually able to make all the cookies and candy and do it all. It was an amazing Christmas.” She was also able to take back up riding her bike, a hobby she loved before the ankle injury, and then lose 30 pounds as a result.

Celeste credits St. Vincent Charity and Doctors Canales and Keppler for helping her end her 13-year ordeal. They treated her as an individual patient, looking at her specific situation and believing that they needed to find and COULD find a solution for her chronic pain.

“Dr. Canales and Dr. Keppler literally gave me my life back.”