ORANGE, Calif. – When a police officer is severely injured in the line of duty, the news report usually ends with, “… officer transported to the hospital and is listed in critical condition,” then on to the next story.
This story begins with the officer in the hospital, with him inching down the hallway straining to hold himself up in a walker, his breathing becoming more labored as the pain in his left leg worsened.
“About a seven or eight,” City of Orange police Officer Sharif Muzayen said of the agony, 10 being excruciating.
A physical therapist accompanied Muzayen during the total trek of about 200 feet, reported Greg Hardesty from Behind the Badge OC.
For Muzayen, a 32-year-old former Marine with a wife and two young children, the short walk last Thursday was huge progress — and a reason to savor the simple pleasures in life.
“I got hit by a car,” Muzayen said. “I could be dead. I was really close to being dead. But I’m still here. And I still have my leg.”
Had three partners not been with him that night, in all likelihood, he would have bled out within minutes.
A suspected impaired driver caused the collision. Ashley Bertolino, 27, has been charged and faces up to six years in prison if convicted, according to Behind the Badge OC. Her car completely severed Muzayen’s femoral artery, the main supplier of blood to the lower limb.
Coincidently, Muzayen was at the detention of another DUI driver when he was barreled into. He had just collected paperwork from the trunk of his car when Bertolino, driving a Hyundai, slammed into him. Police estimate she had been driving between 40 and 50 mph.
The impact snapped Muzayen’s femoral artery like a rubber band at the top of the hip, sending it disappearing up into his body. And it crushed bones below his knee.
Quick thinking — and a tourniquet applied by his partners — saved his life, Orange Police Department officials said.
Emergency room surgeons had to perform a bypass procedure using the artery from a cow. Otherwise the tissue in his leg would have died and he would have lost the limb.
Muzayen also had head injuries that required treatment. At first, doctors questioned whether he would live. Then they doubted he would keep his leg.
Muzayen spent three days in a medically induced coma before awaking to the sight of his wife, Vanessa. Still dazed, but recognizing his spouse of five years, he pointed a finger to his lips and she kissed him.
“The only explanation (for his survival) is that God was watching over him,” she said.
Since the harrowing collision just hours before his Saturday night graveyard shift was to end, Muzayen has had a near-constant stream of visitors from his brothers and sisters in blue, and some firefighters to boot.
Recently ten detectives from the Anaheim Police Department gang and homicide units surprised him with $2,000 and kind words.
“We want you to know our family is your family,” APD Inv. Jason Smith told Muzayen. “We’re praying for you and we love you.”
Muzayen, propped up in a chair, choked up. “I appreciate every one of you,” he told the visiting officers. “Just your presence makes a huge difference.”
Colleagues admire his tenacity and positive spirit. “He’s got the warrior mindset,” Orange PD Lt. Mike Monjaraz said while visiting Muzayen last week.
Muzayen has a specific sense about the accident that nearly took his life. “I smelled the collision,” he recalled. “I didn’t feel it or see it or see (the driver). But I smelled it. It’s a distinct smell, burned plastic and certain motor fluids. I was standing there thinking, ‘What’s going on?’ The next thing I know I’m lying on my back. And I remember thinking, ‘What happened?’”
The sergeant bent over Muzayen. “Don’t move,” he told him. “Everything’s going to be alright.”
Another officer kept him calm. “Hey man,” he told Muzayen, “you got hit by a car. We’ll fix you up. You’re going to be OK. You’re going to be all right.”
The officers started to apply the tourniquet to Muzayen’s seriously wounded left leg.
While in the Marines, Muzayen was an MP. He was also a combat lifesaver and was very familiar with tourniquets.
“Harder, turn it harder,” he told his OPD colleagues. “Put it higher. Get it all the way up. Tie it as hard as you can.”
While being transported to the hospital, he found irony in his circumstances. “Two tours to Afghanistan didn’t take my leg or kill me, and now this,” he uttered.
Now, Vanessa Muzayen, 32, found herself in a hospital. She had been told her husband had broken his leg. The full gravity of his condition soon became clear to her.
“I always had worried for his safety, both as a Marine and as a police officer,” Vanessa said, “but I thought if he ever was going to be hurt, I feared he would get shot because of how much hostility there is out there now toward officers.”
Vanessa was worried, but she held it together.
“She’s a Marine wife,” said OPD Sgt. Phil McMullin, who was waiting at the hospital to greet her — and has been by the family’s side ever since.
Officers, including Chief of Police Tom Kisela, soon began showing up in droves at the hospital.
“This has brought our police department together,” McMullin said. “Everyone is asking, ‘What can we do, what can we do?’”
Muzayen spent more than a week in ICU before being transferred to the surgery floor, where he is limited to seeing his children, Leia and Luke, only periodically, and only for 15 minutes.
His daughter, Leia, is taking his absence pretty hard.
“He works nights, so during the day when he is sleeping she lies against him,” Vanessa said. “She is with him all the time. Normally she is easygoing and happy, but now she’s crying a lot.”
Admirably, Muzayen isn’t bitter at the driver that nearly killed him.
“She now has to face the aftermath of her decision,” he said. “It’s not that I hate her, but I would like to see her be punished to the fullest extent, just like every person I arrest for DUI.
“She needs to understand the cost of what she did. Drunk drivers, they all make a conscious decision to drive to a bar with their own car, knowing that most likely no matter how drunk they get, they’re not going to leave their car behind but are going to drive back home.”
Muzayen said the driver who struck him should have planned ahead.
“It would have been an $8 Uber drive home for her,” he said.
Added Muzayen: “I just hope to be able to continue reducing the amount of accidents like this. Almost always, it’s not the DUI (driver) who gets hurt, but passengers or other innocent people.”
To date, through the Orange Police Officers Association, a GoFundMe page and other vehicles, people wishing them well have donated close to $60,000 to the Muzayen’s. In addition, employees of the Orange Police Department dipped into their collective pockets to buy Christmas gifts for the family.
Yet the best gift for Sharif Muzayen will be when he is able to walk without the pain elevating to a seven or eight.
(Feature photo is Sharif Muzayen and wife Vanessa. Courtesy Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC.)