After beating cancer, Bristol man takes first steps in 13 years


At 82 years old, Bill Iacovelli felt like a kid as he walked to the mailbox at the end of his driveway. It wasn’t what he found inside the mailbox that excited him. It was simply the fact that he could walk the distance that thrilled him.

“I used to walk five miles a day, from my house to downtown for a coffee,” Mr. Iacovelli recalled.

That all changed in 1999 when Mr. Iacovelli underwent surgery for cancer – sarcoma – of the pelvis.

“They opened me up and took an inch of bone off the top of my pelvis,” he said. “Then they found that the cancer spread to my tibia.  I went in for the operation. Anything that might have had a sniff of cancer they took it. I lost so much blood they didn’t know if I’d live.”

After the surgery came “tons of chemotherapy,” Mr. Iacovelli said.

“They really didn’t think that I was going to make it,” he said.

Mr. Iacovelli survived, but was confined to a wheelchair for the past 13 years, getting a half-hour of physical therapy once a week. He was told that there wasn’t enough tissue left to support him and that he wouldn’t be able to walk again.

“I lived in Florida nine months out of the year. I enjoyed boating, fishing. It was all peaches and cream. I lost my life to cancer,” he said.

It was only recently when a family friend and physical therapist began talking to Mr. Iacovelli about his condition.

“I didn’t know what Bill’s situation was. I didn’t want to be invasive, so I just didn’t ask,” said Glen Brown, a Portsmouth-based personal trainer.

For the past 26 years, Mr. Brown said he’s worked with professional athletes, models and other celebrities to help them with their conditioning. After speaking with Mr. Iacovelli about his condition, he had only one piece of advice.

“If you decide to walk, you can walk,” Mr. Brown told him. “The whole left side of his body was sleeping. I said you have to wake it up.”

For the past six months, the two worked in the kitchen of Mr. Iacovelli’s ranch-style home. Seated in his wheelchair, he began using weights to gain “functional strength” and promote muscle memory with one goal in mind.

“Plan A for us was walking,” Mr. Brown said.

“There was no Plan B.”

Since there was less muscle to work with, what was there had to do more work. Mr. Brown was confident that the body would adapt. Both men admit to being impatient and focused on getting results. In six months’ time, those results came.

“He took one step, then another, until he took four steps. He could go backward better than he could go forward,” Mr. Brown said. “I told him, whichever way you can move, move.”

After several sessions of “walking until he couldn’t walk any more” on the linoleum floor, Mr. Iacovelli ventured onto the carpeted living room floor.

The two continued to progress, with Mr. Iacovelli’s ability to navigate his home without using a wheelchair increasing. Both men were surprised by the rapid progress, crediting the power of positive thinking and the ability of the human body to adapt.

While Mr. Iacovelli is still reliant on a wheelchair for extended distances, now that he is walking, his sight is set on making it around the block.

“Anything is possible as long as you put your mind to it,” Mr. Iacovelli said. “If someone tells you you’re old, you’re sick or you’re not going to walk, don’t you believe it. Anything is possible as long as you put your mind to it.”

The pair is not finished with their work, however.

Mr. Brown calls it a “work in progress.” Mr. Iacovelli, while excited by the progress he’s made in such a short time, said there are still goals he’s set for himself, including walking into restaurants with his friends like they used to do and going dancing. As for his wheelchair, Mr. Iacovelli plans to put it in the past.

“I’ll be happy when I can get rid of it,” he said.


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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.