Milwaukee VA Medical Center
Employer buoys Veteran during leukemia fight
It’s not just doctors who heal sick people.
It’s also family, friends and co-workers – or in the case of Joe Pospichal, his employer.
Pospichal, 37, a U.S. Army Veteran who lives in Grafton, had just landed a job with Moraine Environmental in Fredonia, an environmental consulting firm, when he began feeling ill in the spring of 2017.
“I was winded all the time,” Pospichal said, noting it was odd because he regularly exercised and was in decent shape. “Then I started getting these intense night sweats.”
In a matter of weeks, he said his health declined sharply. “I was crashing so hard,” he said. “I was 99 percent sure I had leukemia.”
In June, Pospichal reached out to his primary care doctor at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center, who had him come to the hospital as soon as possible. After one look at Pospichal, the doctor sent him to the Emergency Department.
Pospichal was in the hospital for a week when the diagnosis came back: acute lymphocytic leukemia, a type of leukemia more common in children. And while it is typically curable for children, it is more dangerous for adults.
“For me, the survival rate is 70% -- still pretty scary,” Pospichal said.
“It kicked my body's ass. I was down to nothing. I lost so much muscle, I felt like my legs would snap off at the knees.” Joe Pospichal
Pospichal was sent to Froedtert Hospital for chemotherapy treatment and began an intense regimen.
“It kicked my body’s ass,” he said. “I was down to nothing. I lost so much muscle, I felt like my legs would snap off at the knees.”
Within a couple of months, Pospichal was in remission, but the chemotherapy protocol takes four years.
Meanwhile, he became susceptible to other maladies. About a year after his cancer diagnosis, he got an intestinal infection. Not long after that, he suffered severe dizziness.
“I was so dizzy I couldn’t even write my name,” he said. “(The doctors) feared it (the leukemia) had spread to my brain. It was pretty hairy that first year and a half.”
Steroids prescribed to him also took their toll, and he developed avascular necrosis – death of the bone tissues. There’s no cure, so the solution was a double hip replacement.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and Pospichal was advised to forgo the surgery until it was safe. He was prescribed painkillers and told to ride it out until October.
“Last summer really sucked,” he said. “It’s hard to get excited about the end of chemotherapy when you know hip replacement surgery is coming.”
He got one hip replacaed in November and the second one in February.
Buoyed by his new boss
Throughout the four years of chemo, Pospichal was able to maintain his job with Moraine Environmental, despite getting sick only a few months after signing on.
The small company – only about five employees – does site assessments, soil and groundwater remediation and removal of underground storage tanks. Pospichal was hired as a project manager by the owner, Tom Sweet.
When Pospichal got sick, Sweet stood by him. Even though the illnesses and chemotherapy kept him out of work for months, Pospichal found a safety net with Sweet and his co-workers.
“He hires this new guy, and I get fricking leukemia. I felt bad,” Pospichal said. “My future was totally uncertain. I didn’t know what I was going to do.
“But he hired someone else to pick up the slack and told me, ‘Joe, do what you need to do. There’s always a spot for you here.’”
At the onset of the disease and treatment, Pospichal was off work for nearly a year, from June 2017 to March 2018.
Then came the four years of treatment and the subsequent side effects. Sweet let Pospichal work whenever he felt up to it.
Sweet said he and the other employees felt badly for Pospichal and set out to support him any way they could.
“We never thought to replace him,” Sweet said. “We kept him on salary even though he was not able to work. He’s such an asset. … You don’t want to lose awesome people when you have them.”
Sweet would visit Pospichal in the hospital from time to time, and the employees pitched in to buy him a $500 We Energies gift card to help with expenses. And Sweet made sure Pospichal got salary increases and bonuses along the way.
‘They cared so much’
Pospichal, who is divorced and shares custody of his two children, said he was floored by the generosity of Sweet and his co-workers.
“They cared so much,” Pospichal said, noting that Sweet would also come to his house to visit and bring books, food and anything else he needed. “It amazes me the patience this guy has.”
Sweet, who is a Navy Veteran of the Vietnam era, said his employees are like a second family to him.
“These are my friends. We support each other and do whatever it takes.” Tom Sweet
“They say employees shouldn’t be close friends with their employer. I don’t agree with that,” Sweet said. “These are my friends. We support each other and do whatever it takes.”
“I just love him,” Sweet said of Pospichal. “It’s sad to see a young guy having to go through this. But what was so awesome was that I never saw a lousy attitude or depression from Joe. He was always upbeat and positive. He probably had (down times), but I didn’t see them. He kept fighting.”
Now, Pospichal is back to good health and working – and grateful for it.
“He (Sweet) is a wonderful man. He cares so much,” Pospichal said. “He always sees the best in people and really tries hard to help people. He’s like a father figure to me.
“This has been such a surreal and strange experience. It’s definitely taught me empathy to the nth degree.”