Humble Heroes: Be a Joe
By Alice Doyle
Eleven years ago, Joe McMahon was working delivering express mail. One day, after making a delivery near home he stopped by his house to work on a plumbing problem. He poured a chemical solvent down the backed up sink, waited the requisite five minutes, and turned on the warm water. Almost immediately, he heard a rumbling sound and was backing away when the liquid shot up out of the drain like a shotgun blast, slamming with some force into the right side of his face. Feeling like his whole head was on fire, he stuck it under the faucet and ran cold water over it. That was the worst thing he could have done. The water reacted with the drain cleaner like a catalyst.
Joe saw blood squirting into his hands and knew he was in trouble. Picking up the phone to call 911, it took him ten tries to dial correctly. The ambulance carried him to Prince William Hospital where he stayed in the ER for several hours. He couldn’t see at all and, according to his wife, looked like “the worst nightmare burn victim.”
The eye surgeon who examined him said, “There’s nothing we can do for this guy. Get him out of here.” When Joe heard that, he knew he’d be blind and just sat in the ER clutching his rosary and reciting Hail Marys over and over. In intense pain, he could hardly pass the beads through his fingers; but he asked his Blessed Mother to be with him, support him and protect him. Joe remembers feeling badly for his own mother who he knew would be heartbroken when she heard about the accident.
Prince William transferred Joe to George Washington Hospital where he stayed for 15 days and underwent surgery to remove his right eye. While in the hospital, his doctor and social worker repeatedly warned him to be prepared for the anger and depression that were sure to come. But they didn’t. Instead, the sight in his left eye gradually returned. Fortunately, the chemical had missed his left retina and cornea. Joe told me, “Once I realized I wouldn’t be blind, I was just so grateful.” His social worker continued to drop by, apparently puzzled by Joe’s unusual response to the situation. Visitors remarked on his cheerful, upbeat attitude. When they expressed surprise at how well he was coping, he gave all the credit to Our Lady saying that in the ER, after he’d begged Mary’s intercession, he’d felt “a miraculous calming feeling. I just knew everything was going to be okay.”
It took one year and several more operations for Joe to adjust to life with one eye. He experienced a loss of depth perception making simple tasks like pouring a glass of milk a challenge. Reflecting on how God had worked in his life through the whole experience, Joe had this to say, “It made me more humble. I’d always been an athlete, active in sports and one day, boom, it’s all gone and all I had was my faith.”
A daily communicant of 20 years, Joe has a special devotion to the Blessed Mother and makes a point to say the rosary daily and spend time in front of the Blessed Sacrament when he can. He says those were the things that prepared him to deal with what happened. Of his accident he observes, “It was God’s way of saving my soul. This is the way He chose for me for whatever reason.”
We all need heroes. Unfortunately, it is easier to find examples of anti-heroes, people who drag us all down. In fact, they seem to receive all the press: he politician who lies to his constituents, the CEO who embezzles funds, the actress who abandons her marriage. What do they teach us? Where do they lead us? Anti-heroes crush idealism and hope and tempt us to believe we can’t expect better because, after all, they’re “only human,” just like us.
But, how wonderful it is to be a human being! Unlike animals, we can strive to love as God loves. We can choose our responses to the myriad opportunities life offers. We can suffer nobly and, when given something good, pass it up for the sake of the great.
I know that there are Joes in your life, humble heroes serving God faithfully where He put them. Look for them. Thank God for them. And most importantly, be one yourself.