As Mark Romanish tried to process the news that part of his right leg was going to be amputated, one fear among many kept rising to the top.
“My big concern was, ‘How am I going to work? How am I going to support myself?” said Romanish, a 52-year-old Tallmadge resident who had figured he was many good years from retirement.
Romanish’s career is about as far from sitting behind a desk as one can get. For 37 years, he has worked on the maintenance staff at Midway Lanes in Akron.
One day will find him climbing intricate pin machines to find out why they’re misbehaving. Another might find him fixing a toilet or doing electrical work. Most days, there is something to be done on the eight buses the alley owns for transporting school children. A few years ago, Romanish even put a new roof on the Tallmadge Avenue building.
Funny thing is, Romanish’s employment was never a question for his boss, alley owner Ray Stalnaker.
“There was never a time I thought Mark wouldn’t be able to do his job,” Stalnaker said in a recent interview.
So for three months, Stalnaker did what Romanish could not, all the while sending him his full weekly paycheck.
That’s why, when families throughout the Akron area sit down together and offer thanks for the blessings in their life, Romanish will be remembering his boss and the other Midway Lanes employees who stepped up to fill the void until their missing employee could return.
“When this happened, I just felt bad, like I was letting everyone down. I knew they needed me, and I couldn’t be there,” Romanish said. And as days turned to weeks and then months of recovery, “I was so afraid they were going to give up on me, but they never did.”
Romanish now walks with a prosthetic leg and is doing many of the things he used to do at work. He has a long way to go, but looking back, he’s amazed how far he has come since April 10, when a sharp pain in his leg sent him to the hospital emergency room.
Numbness in leg
He already had seen a doctor several times over the previous 18 months, complaining that his leg had been going numb, ached constantly and reacted weakly and clumsily when he walked.
“They just kept looking at it [and] saying nothing was wrong,” he said.
But something was very wrong.
Romanish had aneurysms behind both knees, a condition that caused his arteries to balloon. In the right knee, he had the additional problem of a blood clot.
That blood clot caused “the most pain I’ve ever had in my life,” he said. It shut off the circulation in his foot, which already had turned gray by the time he arrived at the hospital.
The next morning, surgeons removed his leg below the knee.
“It was devastation,” Romanish said.
The next day, infection set in. He was encouraged to have his leg cut again — above the knee.
“But that changes everything,” Romanish said. “They say if you have your knee, you can pretty much do what you did before. If you don’t, then you’re depending on a mechanical knee, and it’s a totally different ballgame of what you can do and how you do it.”
His son, Joey, found a physician at the Cleveland Clinic who thought he could save the joint, but, “he said it would take a long time and be a long process.”
Meanwhile, Stalnaker called regularly to offer support.
“He said, ‘When you get through this, it will be as it was before,’ ” Romanish said. That assurance gave him the mental strength to focus on his physical recovery.
In the interim, Stalnaker and another maintenance worker, Vernon Dunlap, picked up the slack.
Stalnaker was no stranger to the job. He started at Midway 48 years ago while he was still in high school, repairing pin machines.
Nearly 10 years later, Stalnaker was the alley’s assistant manager when Romanish came on board, a new high schooler assigned to “pin jumping” duty.
Stalnaker bought the place in 1982. He noted that Dunlap has been on the job for 38 years, and manager Denise Reitz has been with the alley for 24 years.
Some big corporations see their employees as expendable resources, “but I’m a small business, and we have a family relationship here,” Stalnaker said.
And, as families do, when one member is at their worst, the others try to be at their best.
Stalnaker found himself looking for inspirational stories to share with Romanish. The two men talked about South African Oscar Pistorius making history this summer as a double-amputee in Olympic track and field. Because Romanish has a motorcycle, Stalnaker also pointed out a magazine piece about a bike rider seeing the world on two wheels and no legs.
“I’m not going to treat Mark like an invalid unless he wants to be treated like one,” Stalnaker said. “And I knew he wasn’t that type of person.”
Romanish returned to work in July in a wheelchair.
“I could do a little bench work, but mostly I just told other people what to do. Ray said he wanted me there for my brain,” he said.
About a month ago, Romanish was fitted with a temporary prosthetic leg. He walks with a limp, and he’s admittedly very sore by the time his work day ends, “but I’m on my feet and I’m working on the buses again and doing a lot of what I did before.”
Today, Romanish also will give thanks for many others in his life. In addition to his son, his boss and his co-workers, he’ll never forget the constant support from his sister, Sue Boling, and his girlfriend, Cindy May. He can’t look at the wheelchair ramp to his home without remembering that his former brother-in-law, Mike Boling, paid for it and his neighbor Joe built it.
And his heart still warms to how numerous friends and family contributed to a bowling fundraiser that raised more than $5,000 for medical expenses.
“I just want them to know what they did for me,” Romanish said. “I’ve got a long way to go, but I’m getting better every day.”