Connellsville man needs community's help
By Laura Szepesi
Published: Monday, Nov. 5, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
During his lifetime, Joe Hrezo has met hundreds of people on the job and while serving his community.
He is a former Connellsville City councilman and was chairman of the city's housing authority. During his career as a newspaper advertising salesman for The Daily Courier and the Uniontown Herald-Standard, he made dozens of business acquaintances throughout Fayette and Westmoreland counties. At St. Rita Roman Catholic Church, he served as a longtime usher.
Hrezo and his wife, Sharon, now find themselves needing help from such friends and acquaintances.
The family has battled mounting medical bills in the 20 years since Hrezo became ill from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig disease. They recently had to purchase a handicap-accessible van for Hrezo. It cost more than $28,000 — an unexpected bill that struck them hard.
Gehrig, a New York Yankees first baseman, had such great physical strength that he was nicknamed The Iron Horse. His record of 2,130 games without an absence stood from 1939 until the Baltimore Orioles' Cal Ripken shattered it in 1995.
Hrezo Connellsville's ‘Iron Horse'
It seemed like nothing could sideline The Iron Horse. That is, until Gehrig met ALS. He was diagnosed in 1938 and died in 1941 at the young age of 38. Only 10 percent of ALS patients live for more than 10 years. That makes Hrezo, of Connellsville, an “Iron Horse” of sorts.
The disease affects about 50,000 Americans each year. ALS patients' muscles lose nourishment, so the muscles wither and weaken. The spinal cord develops scar tissue instead of healthy nerves.
Movement nerve cells are destroyed; the patient keeps all of the five senses, but loses mobility. Hrezo was typical in that he developed ALS when he was in his 40s, as the disease usually occurs between age 40 and 70.
He and his wife noticed that his health was declining around 1993. An avid jogger, Hrezo, at age 43, couldn't run so fast any more. His ALS tentative diagnosis in 1995 hit him and his wife “like a punch in the gut,” he said. The more they learned about the disease, the more frightened they were.
Despite mounting medical bills and steadily declining health, Hrezo soldiered on. He had to quit his job (in 1993 he worked for Helicon Cable Co. in Uniontown), but got a job as a toll collector for the Pennsylvania Turnpike until poor health forced him to retire in 2009.
Wheelchair userequires van
Hrezo used a cane for many years, then a walker. He is now confined to a wheelchair — hence the need for the handicap-accessible van. “A car payment is the last thing we need right now,” Hrezo said.
ALS is an expensive disease. “Insurance covers a lot of things but not the van or some other things,” explained Hrezo, who uses a speech device that will soon need to be replaced but is not insurance-covered.
Friends from the Connellsville community suggested that he and his wife sponsor a fundraiser. “They thought that we should sell tickets for a large-screen television and a stereo system to accompany it. We thought, ‘What the heck? We'll try it,'” he said.
Tickets for the “Thanksgiving Special” cost $20 each and have two numbers. The winner will be selected based on the Pennsylvania Lottery on Thanksgiving night. Several people in town are selling the tickets, which can also be purchased by calling the couple at 724-628-2127.
Giving thanks for good friends
People who don't want a ticket can still donate if desired. “We've had several persons so far who have requested to do that,” Hrezo said. “If a local store, club or church would like to help out, we sure would be grateful.”
Joe and Sharon Hrezo said they selected Thanksgiving for the ticket date because they are so thankful for all the help that family and friends have provided since he has been ill.
“We couldn't live in a better neighborhood,” he said. “We want to express our gratitude to everyone for helping us.”
Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.
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