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Work ethic serves man well in recovery

December 7, 2010 – By MIKE REUTHER

Chuck Mertes, of Cogan Station, is used to the aches and pains of his job.

As owner and partner in a plumbing, mechanical and electrical appliance installation business, he uses his body to get things done.

So in June, when he felt what he thought was nothing more than a problem with his back, he didn’t become too concerned.

At least not at first.

“I just thought it was muscle spasms,” he said.

But a trip to a chiropractor didn’t do much for him.

Days later he was unable to get out of bed.

In fact, things became so bad, that he became paralyzed from the chest down.

Tests were done. Initially, it was thought Mertes was suffering from Guillain-Barre syndrome.

“They later said it was transverse myelitis,” he said. “They told me they didn’t know if I could walk again.”

Described as a neurological disorder caused by inflammation across both sides of the spinal cord, researchers are uncertain of the exact causes of transverse myelitis.

The onset of lower back pain progressing to paralysis, as experienced by Mertes, are common symptoms for many of those stricken with the disorder.

Transverse myelitis often develops over a period of a few days to a couple of weeks, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Its onset can follow viral infections or as a complication of syphilis, measles, Lyme disease and some vaccinations such as for rabies.

Just 1,400 new cases of transverse myelitis are diagnosed in the U.S. annually.

No cause could be identified in Mertes’ case.

Understandably, he was afraid of what his future held.

Fortunately, rehabilitation, in the form of recovering limb control, strength, coordination and range of motion, can help patients recover from the disorder.

With the help of therapists at Williamsport Regional Medical Center, Mertes set about regaining his life.

“He had pretty good upper body strength,” said Mary Ann Bellfy, a recreational therapist inpatient supervisor.

That helped him with rehabilitation, she said, which amounted to getting him to reprocess his brain to work his lower body movements.

He was really focused, she recalled, on walking again.

Eventually, he began moving his limbs, even walking. His rehabilitation included aquatic therapy, allowing him to remain buoyant and giving him freer use of joint movement.

That he was determined to get better and kept a good attitude about his recovery made a big difference.

“He took as much therapy as he could get,” Bellfy said.

Steroids helped with inflammation.

He credits his wife, Christine, with supporting him.

Interestingly enough, therapists noted how Mertes often was more interested in the progress of other rehabilitation patients.

Falling back on his plumbing skills, he was forever “fixing stuff” around the rehabilitation center, Bellfy laughed.

Now back to work, he is able to get around with a cane, which he claims he really doesn’t need that much.

Sitting on the back of his truck at his Montoursville business, which he runs with his son, Mertes said he’s feeling pretty good these days. He conceded he doesn’t have his former stamina and, while he can get around on his feet, he remains numb from the chest down.

But that doesn’t stop him from trying to do the things he always did.

A Boy Scout leader, Mertes most recently went on a camping trip with his local troop.

“He is able to go up and downstairs,” said physical therapist Margaret Kelly. “He’s so independent, so self-directed. He basically does his own therapy.”

These days, he is working harder on regaining his balance, gait, strength and endurance.

“Every day something is getting better,” he said.

Article and picture appeared in the December 7, 2010 Williamsport Sun-Gazette

Home and Safe

Members of the National Guard’s Co. B, 1st Batallion, 109th Mechanized Infantry Regiment stand at parade rest before being dismissed from active duty Sunday at the Grove Street Armory.

Appeared in the June 19, 2006 Williamsport Sun-Gazette

Wrapping the City

Boy Scouts from Troop 172 in Montoursville wrap Christmas ribbon around parking meter posts on West Third Street in the city Saturday. Clockwise from the top left are Tony Miller, 16, Andrew Desanto, 12, Bryan Rupert, 14, and Anthony Desanto, 15. The ribbon was provided by JC Floral and tape by Plankenhorn Stationary. The wrapping of all the downtown meters was done in cooperation with the City of Williamsport and the Downtown Merchants Association.

Appeared in the November 29, 2004 Williamsport Sun-Gazette

Working Together

Working together to build core values of leadership and loyalty to one another, Boy Scout Troops 172 and 21 are shown here at a recent outing. The two troops have joined together to teach the youth of the greater Montoursville area the morals of scouting and the values and skills that will follow them for the rest of their lives.

Appeared in Sunday – November 21, 2004 edition of The Sun-Gazette

Salute to Freedom: State National Guard Honors Bosnia Vets, Families

Soldiers from a local Pennsylvania National Guard unit were honored Saturday after spending nearly 11 months of service away from home.

    Their families also were recognized at the Freedom Salute Ceremony hosted by Company B, 109th Mechanized Infantry, at the Grove Street armory.

    The ceremony was part of a nationwide Army National Guard campaign to honor guard members who have served in any of three operations in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to information provided by the guard. The campaign was organized by Army National Guard Director Lt. Gen. Roger C. Schultz and Command Sgt. Maj. A. Frank Lever III.

    “It’s great to know that the families care about us and all the recognition that we got for all of our services,” said Spc. James Calvert of Montoursville.

    Calvert served with 353 other soldiers from the 109th Mechanized Infantry in Bosnia-Hercegovina, said 1st Lt. Chris Roth of Hanover.

    The soldiers who served in Bosnia received encased American flags, commemorative coins, Defender of Freedom lapel insignia, and certificates signed by Schultz and Lever.

    The soldiers left Williamsport May 28, 2002. They received three months of training at Camp Shelby, Miss.; Fort Indiantown Gap; Fort Dix, N.J.; and Hohenfels, Germany, before being deployed Aug. 29 in Bosnia.

    “Our jobs pretty much were just to patrol around Bosnia and keep the peace,” said Pfc. Alan Lusk of Montoursville.

    Soldiers from the 109th infantry sought out war criminals while patrolling more than 2,000 square miles daily, Roth said. They also provided humanitarian support to the Bosnian people by requesting donations from home and providing a drug-awareness program to students in the city of Tuzla.

     The soldiers worked alongside soldiers from other North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations, including France, Turkey, Finland and Denmark.

    They arrived at Fort Dix March 20, 2003, and returned home more than a month later.

    Guard deployments differ greatly from those in past wars, creating a greater need for family support, said Command Sgt. Major Kenneth Hill, guest speaker at the ceremony.

    “Over wars we’ve had in the past, and over the campaigns that we’ve done where we’ve had to deploy the National Guard, the majority of the troops were not married,” Hill said. “It’s not that way anymore.”

    Those left behind are left with the responsibility of handling all of the day-to-day management of the household, as well as the stress of having a loved on in a war zone.

    “It was very stressful,” said Dawn Calvert, wife of James. “You have to stress about everything and worry, ’Is everything going to be OK?’”

    The Calverts have no children. Dawn said it probably would have been harder to cope with her husband’s deployment if they had children.

    “It would have been really hard to explain why he’s not home, when he’ll come back,” she said. “Calling and talking to him is hard enough all on its own for myself. Little kids wouldn’t understand you can only talk for three minutes.”

    Families also were recognized at the ceremony. Soldiers’ spouses received specially designed Defender of Freedom lapel insignia. Their children received Future Soldier footlocker kits, which included games, trading cards and a comic book.

    Melissa Robinson and Anice Ostrom were recognized for their work in organizing the Family Readiness Group, which provided support for soldiers and their families.

    “I’m very appreciative that all the soldiers have high respect and high regard for what we did as a group while they were gone,” said Ostrom, of Liberty.

    The group required a lot of work, she said.

    “I had over 6,000 miles on my car and I averaged 20-plus hours a week working with the unit,” she said.

    They did not act alone. Several others in the community, including students from Liberty and Jersey Shore elementary schools, showed support for the troops.

    “The students prepared care packages for the soldiers on about an every other month basis, where they sent them toothbrushes, letters, shampoo,” she said, “Anything they thought the soldier would like to have.”

    Students and faculty from those schools also were recognized.

As appearing in Sunday – May 16, 2004 edition of The Sun-Gazette

Focusing on Her Future

As the Montoursville Area High School class of 2003 accepts their diplomas earlier this month, 18-year-old Alicia Null looked like a typical graduate.

She wore the same blue cap and gown, received the same piece of matted parchment paper and offered the same ear-to-ear smile as the rest of her graduating peers.

However, there is nothing typical about what she overcame to get where she is today.

Over the last three years, Null has dealt with more tragedy and adversity than most people deal with in a lifetime.

In September of 2000, her father, John Null, died after suffering a heart-attack while on a hunting trip in Canada. Just over a year later her fiance, Matthew Mertes, was killed in a tragic car accident little more than a month after the young couple’s daughter had been born.

In little more than a year, Null had gone from being an average teenager to a single mother trying to raise a child while dealing with two life changing tragedies, all while finishing high school and working a part-time job.

Combining these events might seem difficult for anyone to cope with, let alone a teenager. But, as one can quickly tell, Null is far from average.

“No matter how tough things get you have to suck it up, bite the bullet and move on,” Null said. “You can’t let things get in your way. You need to prioritize your life, and right now my daughter is my priority.”

Null’s 18-month-old daughter, Julia Rose Mertes, is much more than just her priority – she is her motivation for a successful future. She is preparing to pave her way to this successful future by pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business at Pennsylvania College of Technology in the fall.

“I need to prepare for what happens down the road, not just for me but for my daughter,” Null said. “I can’t always count on everyone else.”

Even with the responsibilities of motherhood, Null managed to maintain a superb academic standing throughout high school.

She graduated in the top portion of her class with a cumulative academic average of 90 percent.

Prior to graduation, Null received a number of scholarships and awards. Among them were the American Legion Squadron 104 Sons of the American Legion Award for outstanding scholastic achievement and community involvement and the Carl W. Stenberg Jr. Scholarship, given in recognition of all she has overcome in recent years. She also received the President’s Education Award for outstanding academic achievement.

Now that high school is finished, she will work full-time this summer to help pay for college.

Despite all she has overcome, Null admits the support of her family and friends has been the backbone of her ability to move forward.

Both her and her fiance’s families have been “incredibly supportive” throughout everything, she said.

“I don’t know where I’d be without them,” she added.

As her daughter continues to grow, Null has made it a priority for Julia to know everything she can about her father and grandfather.

Because Julia was born after her grandfather died and had little time to spend with her father prior to his accident, Null has collected scrapbooks of pictures so her daughter can learn more about the two men that made such an impact in their lives.

“I collect everything and put it in her memory box so she knows who she is and where she came from,” Null said.

Even now, Julia easily identifies her father and grandfather in pictures with responses of “Daddy” and “Pop-Pop.”

Despite all she has been through, Null refuses to let people take pity on her – a task that may not be as easily done considering the events of the past three years.

“When you have a baby, people look at you different; when you lose your father, people feel sorry for you; and when you lose the love of your life, people really don’t know how to react,” she said. “I don’t like people feeling sorry for me, and I don’t like being treated differently.”

Null will be the first to agree that what she has gone through was not easy, but also said it has helped her become who she is today.

“I’m more independent and more confident with myself than I was before,” she said. “Right now, all I need is my daughter and my family and I am happy.”

Although she admits not a day goes by where she does not think about her father or her fiance, she said it is her responsibility to be strong and move on.

It’s a responsibility that is supported in full by both the Null and Mertes families as they watch proudly.

Appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette