To The Disabled Police Officer: You are not forgotten
“The Academy prepared us for many things, and trains us to take on the world in our new career. What it does not prepare us for however, is the inner war that will be waged, when our career was snatched from us”
Wearing a badge was a matter of pride. At 24, my hard work had finally paid off. In 2006, I walked across the stage and had a badge pinned on my chest. The badge represented more than an accomplished goal. It represented the community’s trust. I was being trusted to carry out my duties with integrity.
I would never become wealthy an LEO. That didn’t matter. The job brings immeasurable wealth. Handing an abused child a teddy bear and being available to help can never be measured in financial terms. This is why we do this job. It defines us as individuals. Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This defines policing.
The first time I heard this quote I was inspired, once it’s in your blood, you are never the same. Just like the athlete has an internal driving force to exercise and compete, the officer has that internal force that pushes them to want to help. If there is a cry for help in the middle of the night, we want to be there.
Being a police officer was everything I hoped it would be. I enjoyed my work, and I felt I had found my purpose in life. I truly felt I was doing my part to help my fellow man and I could not have been happier. Early in my career, I transferred to a new department, and went to work for a municipality as a patrol officer. It wasn’t long after arriving there, that the department got in some new and controversial Electronic Control Devices (ECD). Soon after working there, they held a training class for officers to get qualified on use and carry of the new ECD’s. We sat down, watched the video, and were encouraged to take an electric deployment to experience the effects of the device. While I was not jumping for joy to be zapped by 50,000 volts, I surely did not want to be viewed as a sissy! Besides, I was young and invincible…right? I had an officer on each side of me to ensure I didn’t fall. They hooked the device up to my back and let it fly. All I can say was WOW! I felt like I had been folded in half and stuffed under the bed. When the ordeal ended, it was clear things were not right. My back was in horrible pain, and was throbbing as if I was being attacked by a jack hammer. My Lt. noticed I wasn’t recovering like the others had, and asked if I was ok. Of course, I said I was. I was not going to give away that I was hurt, I’m a tough guy remember?
The next morning was not so great. I had been up all night in excoriating pain. I ended up sleeping at an odd angle in a lazy boy reclining chair to take pressure off from my back. I got about 3 hours sleep, woke up and got ready for work. When I came to work, I had mentioned to my sergeant nonchalantly how I was hurting from the ECD deployment. He told me I should immediately get it looked at. I was quite surprised at how concerned he seemed, but I did as he said and went in to get it checked out. Turns out I had a severe back stain to the thoracic spine region. Due to the fact I did not want to miss work, especially as a new officer at this department, I continued on working and decided to deal with the pain.
About six weeks after my injury, I began to notice strange symptoms coming on. I would have the occasional spouts of dizziness accompanied by a brief shortness of breath. I shook it off and kept working as if nothing happened. Finally, one night while toward the end of my shift, I responded to a domestic violence call as a backup officer. While at the scene, I was standing outside when everything began to spin. I became dizzy, shaky, and was terrified as to what was going on. Never before had I experienced such a sensation and total loss of sensory input. I managed to clear the call, get off duty and went home. When I arrived home, my wife could tell something was wrong. With my symptoms failing to reside, she drove me to the emergency room to be seen. This is where my Journey as a disabled officer truly began.
I laid there in the hospital bed with anticipation as to what was going on with me. When the doctor finally came in, he stated everything looked fine and could find nothing wrong. I sat there both puzzled and amazed that symptoms so strong and terrifying could not be explained. I left the hospital in sour disappointment and headed home confused and rattled by my experience. The next day, things did not get better as I had expected. I woke up feeling fatigued, cloudy, and vulnerable. I felt as if I was in a dream, and everything around me was foggy and surreal. I thought perhaps I should go for a walk. I walked out the front door and attempted to go get the mail. I made it about twenty feet before I was stopped dead in my tracks. My surroundings were unstable, foggy, and left me with a feeling of being disoriented. I turned around to head back into the house, but fell to my knees as I made my way back in. Here I was, a young 25 years old police officer, in great shape, and I was crawling to get into my house! It was clear something was seriously wrong, and my quest to find an answer began.
I went through specialist, and began an extensive battery of tests. I was becoming a human guinea pig as I searched for answers. This whole ordeal began to weigh heavily on my job performance and relationships at work. I began to miss a lot of work as a result, and it was affecting my popularity at work. The other officers began to view me in a negative light. They knew I had claimed I was having health issues, but they didn’t understand the extent of it or how it was affecting me. One reason for the frustration was due to the fact that we were short staffed. When I had to go home due to my condition, or was unable to make it into work, this meant that others on my squad had to pick up the slack and make up for the calls of service I would not be there to take. This resulted in an increased work load for the rest. I understood this and did not take lightly the fact I was putting a burden on my squad. This greatly affected my self-esteem along with my sense of self-worth to the department. I had been doing well and excelled while in Field Training. Now I was letting my colleagues and command staff down, and there was nothing I could do about it. If there is one thing an officer cannot stand, its loss of control and the inability to fix the situation. Here I was, trying to live up what was expected of me, and there was nothing I could do about it. My body had enacted a mutiny on my spirit, and no matter how bad I wanted to operate the ship, the crew refused. In spirit, I wanted nothing more than to go back to work and provide for my squad, department, and family. However, without my body’s cooperation, I was running on borrowed time and this reality became clearer with every passing day. I continued to push myself to get by day after day, but the more I pushed, the more I began to slip. The brain fog caused me to become forgetful. At times I would forget to turn in a report, or forget to complete a task requested by my sergeant. I had always been a happy upbeat guy, always joking around and laughing with those around me. Soon I became quiet and inverted. My sergeant asked if things were ok, he had noticed that I was not myself, and showed concern. I told him I was fine; however I was far from it. In fact, I was waging a war within myself, and it appeared I was losing.
As time went on battling this condition, I began to battle with my reputation as well. Soon, some officers at the department began to doubt me as an officer and my ability. Despite the fact I was able to maintain good patrol stats for my days on shift, I began to hear rumors that some felt I was putting up a front and faking my condition. I was devastated when hearing this. I had moved here with my wife, bought a home, and had planned to be here for the long haul. With my wife 8 months pregnant and ready to bear our child at any time, why would I risk everything, including my home? However, when faced with added pressures, people don’t often concern themselves with such logic. All they knew is that when I was not on shift that meant more work for them. To be honest, I don’t blame them for feeling this way. I understand the stresses that come with working extra calls and hours, and it can wear a person’s patience thin. What struck me at the heart however, was the cold front I received from some I perceived as being “friends”. Many I had enjoyed being around, and thought of as friends were nowhere to be found. It felt as if they had written me off, and that sense of abandonment caused me more distress than this health problem ever could. I was even told that one officer I worked with stated he would not speak to me until I “earned his respect back”. Apparently becoming ill was enough to fall out of grace with some around me. This caused even more anxiety for me. On the outside I looked healthy enough, but on the inside I was falling apart and in agony. The command staff was very understanding, and my sergeants went out of their way to help in any way they could, however this provided little comfort when I knew some of the fellow patrol officers thought low me. I found myself slipping into a depression. I was struggling to keep up at work, I had no answers as to why this was happening, and the future of my ability to provide for my family was uncertain. What was I going to do?
I was informed by my doctor that my cortisol was low and it was a concern because it regulates many things in the body such as shock and inflammation. I asked what would happen if I was hurt at work, i.e. shot. She stated it would not be good, and my body could fall into a status of shock, resulting in death due to the inability to compensate with adequate amounts of cortisol. This raised some serious questions in my mind on what I should do about my job.
A few weeks later I was dispatched to a domestic violence call. While there I began to become dizzy, shaky, and thought I was going to black out. It had become clear to me that no matter how bad I wanted to keep working, no matter how bad I wanted to prove myself, my body was finished. It had let me down, and no longer was willing to humor me in my continued pursuit of redemption to myself or my department. The war I had been waging was coming to end, and I had to accept the fact I would need to sign papers of surrender. I thought long and hard about this decision. What would I do? How would I provide for my family? However, it was the bigger questions that made those first questions irrelevant. Could I live with myself if a fellow officer was hurt or killed? What good at all would I be to my department or my family if I were killed? Being a street cop requires you to be on the ball. You have to be ready for anything, and if you are battling a health condition that detracts away from your ability to perform, you not only put yourself at risk, you put those around you and the public at risk as well. Finally, I concluded for me to continue to push the issue was reckless and selfish; I went to my Lt. and explained my dilemma. He understood my feelings and listened well. He encouraged me to stick it out and stated they would like for me to stay, but I knew I had to focus on myself and get my health squared away if I were ever going to continue my career. We shook hands, parted as friends, and I began the long walk down the hall as a medically resigned officer.
There was some relief in the fact that I no longer had to worry about letting down my squad, however what I wasn’t prepared for was the emotional impact of no longer being able to work. I was so sick with erratic symptoms, I could not even have a light normal job due to the fact I was simply unreliable. Many times throughout the day I would have to lie down and wait for my flare up of symptoms to pass. It would stop me cold in my tracks and leave me waiting for relief to come. While this was hard in of itself, being ripped from my career was even more painful. I would lie awake at night, thinking about calls I was missing and wishing more than ever to be able to put on my uniform and go back to work. I began to miss everything about my job. It had become such a cornerstone of whom I was that I felt as if there was a huge hole in me, and everything that went missing with that hole was effecting me severely. If this is who I am, who am I now? I am a protector, what does a protector do with no one to protect? This caused me to slip into a great loss of identity. I became very depressed, and the happy person I had been before was not looking back at me in the mirror. Instead, I saw a man who was lost and had more questions than answers.
One of the hardest parts for me to deal with was the loss of friendships. While you work, it’s normal to have good working relationships and friendships with those at your agency. In fact, you could even say at times these friendships are taken for granted. While working, I enjoyed a good relationship with many at the department, but as my health declined, so did the connection between my colleagues. I went from feeling like one of the guys to feeling like a cast out. Going from socially accepted to loner is a hard thing to deal with, and I felt feelings of anxiety I hadn’t dealt with since junior high school. I was in with the “click” so to speak, and now I felt isolated and shut out. The phone stopped ringing, the texts messages trickled to a halt, and eventually any reminder of the fact I served as an officer was limited by my memories and the unused uniform in the closet collecting dust. The big question for officers who experience this is what comes next? What does one do to make tomorrow the day to look forward to rather than relive the days of the past before you were disabled?
For me, the key has come down to family and keeping busy. Remember that family is number one. Without my wife there by my side when I hit my downward spiral, I would have been flying blind and may have ended up in an even darker place. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it, there is no shame in wanting to talk. I have spoken to other disabled officers, and the fact there are others just like us who have gone through the exact same roller coaster of emotions is important. You’re not weak, nor are you a machine. You are human and we must remember to allow ourselves to listen to the emotional side of us from time to time. When you work as an officer, you are subjected to horrific things, and see things that many will never experience in a life time. You become all too good at shutting down that natural emotional response one gets to stress, horror and tragedy. You learn to push emotions to the back burner and lock it away for another day. When you deal with a stressful scene, an officer must be able to be the calm one that functions while everyone else loses their cool. If you lose your calm along with everyone else, then you are no good to anyone and the situation will not get resolved. Remember to continue to challenge yourself. Many of us who went into law enforcement did so setting the bar of achievement high for ourselves; it takes a lot to become an officer and is earned through hard work and dedication. Take that work ethic and apply it to other aspects of your life. When I became an officer I had no college degree. I realized that this is something I would have liked to have done, but the hours I was working along with having a family made it difficult. When I became ill, I decided I would not sit idly by and do nothing. I may have fallen victim to a health condition, but this did not mean I had to be a victim! I decided to go to school and earn my degree I have a beautiful wife who enjoys the fact I am alive and home, and wonderful little girl who loves her daddy. While I may never be able to get well enough to go back to patrol, which I love with all my heart, I can still take the essence of what makes a good officer, apply this, adapt, and overcome. Take what you have learned and run with it.
I was faced with some hard decisions, I pictured serving out my career for the long haul, but life can be a funny thing. We must play the cards we are dealt and most importantly, never give up. Remember back to your defensive tactics training, you are never dead. It is not over until it’s over, and becoming disabled is no different. You may be down but you’re not out. Fight back, pick yourself up and come back stronger than before. It’s easy to let the macho alpha ego get in the way of reaching out, but it’s important to remind ourselves we are human! This is why we became police officers in the first place is it not? Did we not answer the call to that human emotion to want to help others in need? I’m not saying you won’t miss the job, I’m only saying we must change our focus. I would be a liar if I told you I still don’t long to put on my uniform and climb into a patrol car. I miss it every day of my life, and even more so I miss the comradery I had with my fellow officers. You are still relevant, you are still an asset to the community, and your impact on the world is not over. I realized from my ordeal that there was not much out there recognizing the officer who becomes disabled and feels forgotten. If you are reading this and you know a disabled officer, reach out to them. If you are an officer or part of a department reading this, reach out to the disabled cops in your community, see how they are doing. If you are reading this and are a disabled officer, I wrote this story for you. I am here; others like me are here, and you are not alone.
Nick is a former Arizona police officer and deputy. He is a Kaplan University Counter Terrorism and Homeland Security major, recently graduating with highest honors. Nick is a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, The National Society of Collegiate Scholars, the Golden Key International Honor Society, Alpha Betta Kappa Honor Society, and Alpha Phi Sigma Criminal Justice Honor Society. He has appeared as an expert commentator on Fox News Radio, and has been published in academic journals as well as Police One. Nick Can be reached at Circlethewagons@live.com and followed on Twitter @Dialn0911