PROVIDENCE — With his brick-solid, 6-foot-6-inch frame and fiery spirit, one could liken Roger Bacon to a big industrial furnace. However, due to a series of medical and personal setbacks suffered in recent years, including losing part of a foot due to infection, the blaze in that furnace had all but gone out.
Now, thanks primarily to the work of two caring physical therapists at Summit Commons Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, the 50-year-old Bacon is all fired up again and ready to embrace the next phase of his adult life with gusto.
The Pawtucket native and Tolman High School graduate had begun having some medical issues about four years ago. Problems with his feet, fueled by undiagnosed diabetes, led to a series of infections that left him largely immobile. It was painful to walk, he experienced numbness in his feet and several of his fingers, and he had to give up driving. He also found it increasingly difficult to operate his longtime retail business, Jolly Roger’s Smoke Shop.
Also during this low period, Bacon says his wife of 26 years suddenly announced she was leaving him. “It was a crushing blow,” he said. “I was in this little tomb of an apartment. I couldn’t drive, couldn’t go anywhere. And I didn’t want to hear anything from anybody,” he said, of the efforts of family and friends to cheer him up.
Bacon’s foot problems grew worse, and an infection entered his bloodstream. He was told he needed immediate surgery or could risk losing his entire foot. Earlier this month, he was sent to the Memorial Hospital, where Dr. Stephen Rogers removed about 20 percent of bone in his foot.
While Bacon’s foot was saved, his spirit was lost. “I went into a zombie coma,” he said. “I completely shut down — emotionally, physically and mentally. I was not ‘me’ anymore.” His recent 50th birthday brought no joy because he felt so “old and washed up” and could only think about his mortality.
Bacon’s family, including his parents, sister, and 23-year-old son, tried to break through. However, he said that seeing his once strong and active father struggle with the Parkinson’s disease he now has, and his mother’s increasing frailty and medical issues, added to the heaviness he was feeling.
As a matter of course following surgery, Bacon was sent to Summit Commons for rehabilitation. Still in his dark mood, he said that in the first couple of physical therapy sessions, he felt he was “just going through the motions.” However, during routine chats with his two therapists, Alan St. Pierre and Ron Gallo, he began to divulge some snippets about his life, his background, and the activities — varsity soccer and wrestling at Tolman and competitive sailboat racing with his father — that used to make him happy.
During one session, Ron Gallo brought a soccer ball to the therapy room. He began tossing it to Bacon and instructed him to hit it back. The two men batted the soccer ball back and forth for five or 10 minutes when suddenly, something happened. “I felt a churning in my stomach and felt a fire coming back,” said Bacon. “And I started to bang the ball back at Ron, again and again. I felt the competitive spirit coming back. I was back as a goaltender again.”
Gallo also remembers the watershed moment. “Roger’s eyes suddenly grew wide, and he began hitting the ball back to me harder and harder. Everyone else in the room just stopped and watched in amazement.”
“It was like he took a key, put it in my head and turned it,” said Bacon. “All the emotions came back...happiness, pain, melancholy...all the things I hadn’t been feeling for so long. My personality came back. I felt like I could be myself again.”
In the subsequent sessions, Bacon has focused on his recovery with a new vigor.
He has been lifting weights, something that he hadn’t done since his 20s, and is learning how to eat better and manage his diabetes. He is proud of his 335-pound physique, saying it is “mostly all muscle.”
Although he still has some problems with his feet and may have to rely partly on a cane, Bacon said he is ready to start living fully again.
He looks forward to participating in some of his favorite sports, as well as the sailing that he enjoyed so much as a youth with his father. “I’m an A-type person. No matter what I did, I didn’t like to lose, and I’ve felt that competitive fire come back,” Bacon said.
Bacon, who was scheduled to be released this past Saturday, also praised the nursing staff at Summit Commons, along with two longtime friends, Jeff Chabo and Bob Peretti, who worked to keep him upbeat and focused during his recovery.
However, of Gallo and St. Pierre, he says, “These two guys brought me back, and that was a tall order. The surgeon did the physical side but these guys did the mental.”
For their part, Gallo and St. Pierre are thrilled with Bacon’s physical progress and mental reawakening. Yet, they say it is essentially “all in a day’s work” for physical therapists, who are trained to find a motivational trigger in every patient.
St. Pierre, a former electrician who began a second career as a physical therapist, said, “It’s all about people and trying to affect people...see what they need from us. The goal is to find something that’s the connection.” He added that the pleasure he gets from working with people is why he went into the field. “They can teach you all about physical therapy, but if you cannot get someone to smile or get that light to come back on, you’ve missed something,” he stated.
Gallo agreed, saying he approached Bacon’s therapy by trying to get a feel for what he did prior to surgery. “We try to find some activity, some interest, and then incorporate it in ways the patient can relate to,” he stated. “That first day, we played a little ball, and then I saw something in him. It was like a light switching on and I knew we had just keyed in. It got him doing something that he hadn’t done in a long time.”
While it’s a physical therapist’s job to motivate patients to embrace their recovery, both Gallo and St. Pierre are appreciative of Bacon as well. “There’s nothing better than hearing someone say ‘Thank you.’ It means a lot,” St. Pierre noted.
Follow Donna Kirwan on Twitter@KirwanDonna