Local man finds career path after helping friend through traumatic accident

Joe Witchger found his passion for nursing after helping a friend with rehab. (Courtesy: Joe Witchger)

GEIST, Ind. (WTHR) — Joe Witchger is a new graduate of nursing school, and he's already caring for the sickest of the sick in St. Vincent's Intensive Care Unit.

"We meet families and patients every day on the worst day of their life," Hannah Wise RN, day shift clinical supervisor at St. Vincent, said.

Some have traumatic injuries, are paralyzed or in a coma. For the many patients who survive, they will recover to live a very different life.

Joe Witchger and Jay Ruckelshaus. (Photo provided by: Joe Witchger)

"He has such a unique perspective because he has been on the other side of the curtain, or the other side of the bed if you will," Wise said.

For Witchger, the insight was unexpected and gained shortly after he graduated from Cathedral High School.

"When I was finishing school I didn't really know what I wanted to do" he said.

He learned after tragedy struck a friend.

Witchger's neighbor and childhood friend, Jay Ruckelshaus, was paralyzed in a diving accident at Geist Reservoir.

As Ruckelshaus participated in rigorous rehabilitation in Atlanta, he set out to hire a helper and start college one year deferred at Duke University.

"I was like yeah, I'll do that" Witchger said.

Witchger remembers having no idea to what he was agreeing. Naive but eager to help, he went.

At Duke, Witchger learned to anticipate what Ruckelshaus needed 24/7.

He helped his friend eat, bathe, dress, navigate the health care system and get where he needed to go. Somewhere along the way, Witchger found direction.

Joe Witchger at his nursing school graduation. (Courtesy: Marian University)

"It was like well if this is how the profession actually works, I'm really enjoying what I'm doing on a daily basis" Witchger said.

Witchger worked full-time assisting Ruckelshaus and in his spare time picked up classes at North Carolina Central University in Durham. After Ruckelshaus graduated, Witchger returned to Indianapolis and kept working toward his degree.

"I am 27 years old now, and it took about seven years," Witchger said. "I just graduated with my degree in nursing my BSN from Marian University. It feels great."

Witchger knows the shock of an accident — the fear of the unknown. The progress that is unpredictable, trying and sometimes elusive. He's also witnessed resiliency and quality of life. The process is painful and possible. This is insight Witchger can provide for patients and their families from day one.

"He is a silent leader. He has a very unique set of tools that we haven't seen before, so it's very exciting for us as a team" (nursing supervisor said). "He is a good listener, and he remembers he has two ears and one mouth and so that is very important in this line of work."

Joe Witchger chatting with Annemarie Tiernon about how he found his passion and love for nursing. (WTHR)

Looking back, Witchger believes his path was perfectly timed. By helping his friend, he found his way.

"Never compare your path in life to somebody else's. We are all going at our own paces on, our own routes" Witchger said. "It helps to have good friends that will be there for you whenever you need it."