A true story of a policeman and his family's struggle to recover
| A Steep Hill To Climb
Preface: This is a true story, related to me by my niece, Shelly Hobson. It was so emotional and compelling, I convinced her to complete it in writing. I’ve done some rudimentary editing of it for my reader’s critique.
The nightmare started on a hot July night in 2000. The phone call that every policeman’s wife dreaded came. It was late when the phone rang so I knew it wouldn’t be good. The voice on the other end was the dispatcher. She said Paul was in an accident and had been taken to the hospital. The funny thing was though, he wasn’t on duty. He was, however, working at Walmart. Our daughter needed braces so he felt he needed to get another job to help pay for them.
My heart fell to my stomach, my head was dizzy. I thought I would lose control, but I knew I had to keep it together for our children, Jess and Cody. I didn’t want them to worry so I needed to pretend things were okay. But I was a mess inside. I was slowly beginning to crumble.
Everything in me wanted to fall down on the ground and melt into the floor. I didn’t want to face what I knew might probably change my life forever.
I needed to get to the hospital but I couldn’t leave the kids home alone. Jessica was fourteen and Cody was eleven. Jess was upset and scared. I couldn’t give her that responsibility. I called our neighbor and asked if she could stay with them for a bit. I truly didn’t think I would be gone long. He probably broke his leg or arm. I felt he would be patched up and sent home.
Driving like a maniac, I ignored the stop signs and the lights. I didn’t care if I got pulled over, surely they would understand, he was one of their own. Luckily, for me, I didn’t even see a squad car.
When I arrived at the hospital one of Paul’s friends came out of the double doors, he was crying. I instantly knew it was much worse than I imagined. He hugged me and I felt my tears on my cheeks. I was in a total daze, not knowing what was happening.
As we walked through those double doors, I heard someone screaming and yelling; it was Paul. The doctors led me into the room. What I saw in there would be the subject of my nightmares for many months to come. It was the most horrendous thing I’d ever seen.
He was laying on this bed writhing, yelling and screaming for help, his face and head covered in blood. He was so combative. As I stood in shock, by his head, I could see the bruising starting to appear. I was scared and worried for him, for me, and for our children. He was begging and pleading with me to help him. There was nothing I could do. I felt so helpless. All I could do was sob and pray.
As I was gently rubbing his forehead, I could see the blood running from his left ear. His eyes were all bloodshot, bruised and swollen.
I hadn’t seen any squad cars on my trip because they were all here at the hospital, both city and county. One officer asked if there was anyone he could call for me. My mind went blank. Even though I had lots of family, I couldn’t think of anyone. Finally, someone said, “Call Chuck and Lori, they’re best friends”. They immediately arranged for their oldest daughter to stay with the kids. I don’t know what I would have done without them and our family. I leaned on them a lot during this time. Their daughter and our friends ended up staying with our kids for several days, for I couldn’t bring myself to leave Paul’s side. He needed me.
The doctor in the ER made me leave the room. It was time to get Paul ready to board a Med-Link flight to La Crosse, the closest major hospital. I waited with Chuck and Lori for them to wheel Paul to the exit where the helicopter was waiting. As I watched them coming down the hall, I stood in fright as they were bagging him with a respirator. He wasn’t breathing on this own! I didn’t think it could get much worse than this.
Chuck drove me to La Crosse Lutheran Hospital. When we walked in, a nurse met us and led us to a small room. Lori must have called our family because they were all waiting for me. All except my mom and dad. My brother Randy broke the news to them and told them not to drive. Because they were upset by the news, he was worried for their safety on the road.
As we all sat there, in tears, I couldn’t help but wonder if he was still alive, or are they going to tell me that he didn’t make it. We all sat in silence, no one daring to say anything. It seemed like we sat there for hours.
When the doctor and the grief counselor opened the door, I froze. “The good news is that he is still alive, the bad news is that he suffered a severe head injury. He has a fractured skull. We will have to wait the night out and watch for swelling of the brain. He also has blood on the brain.” They said that they may have to drill a small hole in his head to relieve the pressure.
The rest of that night was a blur. I remember not being able to sleep, and Lori giving me something to help me (over the counter of course). Everyone stayed with me; my sisters, Kelly and Ron and Jody, my brother Randy, Paul’s sister Amy and her husband Wayne, and his brother Jody. The first night was agonizing. All I thought about was, ‘How will I live without him? How can I tell Jess and Cody?’
The next day I headed to the ICU to see Paul. He was hooked up to all kinds of machines. His wrists were tied to the bed due to him constantly trying to remove his IV and neck collar.
Dr. Davis came in and showed me his CT scan. It didn’t look good. It was all dark gray, his brain had a lot of bleeding and appeared swollen. My hopes for him were dashed.
Later that afternoon and evening our family came back, including my mom and dad. I was a wreck. All I can remember was someone rubbing my forehead trying to console me. I can’t remember if it was Lori or my mom. I remember hearing fireworks outside. I wished desperately that we could all be watching fireworks in the park instead of having to be here. I hated it here. I cried myself to sleep. Sleep became my only escape from this nightmare.
It turned out that Paul had been leaving Walmart and walking to his car, when he was struck by a pickup. The police report stated that he flew up the hood, onto the windshield and down the passenger side, breaking the side view mirror before he landed on the pavement. The sheer force knocked him out of his shoes. His watch landed by a car one row over. The police determined the driver was traveling at 35 MPH. 35 MPH in a parking lot! It was approximately 9:30 at night, but there were lights lighting up the whole area. How could he not have seen him?
I was so angry at him!
That anger stayed with me for many years.
Two days later, we got some hopeful news. Another CT Scan showed great improvement. The swelling had gone down and the bleeding stopped. I wish I could tell Paul the good news, but he was still in a medically induced coma. He was restless, constantly breaking out of his bindings. The nurses finally put bindings on him that resembled boxing gloves. My mom wrapped a rosary around his bound ankles. Eventually he broke out of those ‘boxing gloves’ and broke the rosary! The nurses began calling him ‘Houdini’.
Paul loved to listen to a radio show called ‘Bob and Tom’ as he was patrolling the city. They were a comedy talk show. One day his brother, Jody, mentioned to the nurse that maybe he would calm down if they put them on the radio. They were eager to oblige. After a few hours of listening to the radio, he calmed down. The nurses were able to take the bindings off. I was relieved.
By the fifth day he woke up. The nurses took out the tube running down his throat. Now it was time to let Jess and Cody come to see him. More than anything Cody wanted to see his dad, he needed to know that he was okay. He looked up to his dad. He wanted to become a policeman and a fireman just like him. Jess, however, refused to come. She knew she didn’t want to see him like that.
I hadn’t seen my kids in five days by now, except for when Cody came to visit.
My brother Randy told me that I should go home and be with them, they needed me too. He was right, I knew that. But somehow I couldn’t tear myself away from that hospital. My guilt was overwhelming. I needed to know that Paul would be okay before I could leave him.
On the sixth day he was able to be transferred from ICU to his own room. He was still on morphine and meds to help him sleep.
Many of his colleagues came to see him, along with our family and friends. Even our family doctor came. Paul’s sister and her husband, Amy and Wayne, and Chuck and Lori barely left our side. They made sure I ate, which was something that I barely did these days. I hardly slept or ate. I didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was getting Paul well. Cody came quite often with our family or Kim and Will, who he also stayed with for a few days. Jess however, still would not come to visit him. She stayed with friends of hers.
Paul seemed to enjoy having company and visiting with everyone.
The morphine made him incoherent at times and he didn’t always make sense. He kept asking every visitor for a cigarette, even though he’d quit some time ago. He was jovial and humorous, which fit his personality well.
Among the many visitors was my sister in laws mother, Linda. She sat with us and insisted that I go home for a few hours to shower and refresh. Take some time for me. She assured me that she would stay with Paul until I came back. It was wonderful to see Jess and Cody, but I also felt guilty for leaving. I tried to convince Jess to come and see her dad, but she was still not ready.
I slept on a cot in his room for the next two days. Paul slept a lot. He still was not ‘himself’. He would wake up not knowing who I was. He didn’t know who some of his visitors were either. I was hurt, but deep down I knew it was the morphine.
When his first meal was brought in, it consisted of meat and rice. He hated rice. He fumbled for his silverware. Instantly I knew he was confused. I realized that he didn’t know what to do. I guided his hand to the spoon, slowly loaded it with the rice and led it to his mouth. He ate it! Did he forget that he hates rice? The rest of the meal went the same way, me leading him and showing him how to feed himself. That first meal was quite messy. We had rice all over, on his face and on the sheets and blanket.
Then he needed to go to the bathroom for the first time, Chuck took him. He shuffled his feet like an old person when he walked. Itty-bitty baby steps. He needed to learn how to use the rest room also.
I now had a new fear. I knew I was going to be able to take him home, but would I be taking a new version of him home? I instantly went from being hopeful to fearful. Was I going to be able to handle this?
Now on the seventh day, we are able to go home. We loaded the abundance of flowers, cards and plants in my car. He received gifts, and cards of well wishes from almost everyone he knew. When we arrived at home I unloaded my overflowing car. The dining room was covered in those flowers, cards and plants.
I’d left Paul sitting on the front deck. When I went back outside, he was gone. Did he wander off? Where in the world could he have gone? Looking around, I found him in the yard trying to hit golf balls. Before the accident he was an avid golfer. I yelled “What are you doing?” I led him back to his chair on the deck. Chuck and Dave Richards were coming over to play cribbage with him, something he loved to do and did well.
In the days following, we had many visitors, including our Police Chief, who was very generous! He really wanted to show that he cared for us so he insisted that I take his gift of money. He wanted to be able to do something for us.
Our worries and grief were not over yet. While Paul was in the hospital, he was not able to take care of business. Keeping that in mind, I asked Wayne to get in touch with a lawyer for us. I decided to take everyone’s advice and seek professional help. Wayne soon contacted our local legal group. They, in turn, sent a representative to the hospital to meet with Wayne and myself many times.
In the end, we sued the driver’s insurance company for the hospital bills, mental anguish and loss of income. He was ordered to pay restitution. I was angry. I felt that he could never ‘pay’ enough for what he did to us. He changed our lives forever. He turned our lives upside down.
As part of the lawsuit, we had to meet with his insurance reps and ours to give our depositions. What made me angry was that the driver was able to tell his side, and when he was finished, he was able to leave. Then it was our turn to tell our story. I had so much to say to him but he never got to hear it. Why did they just let him go? I felt he needed to hear what he put us through and I needed to say it to him, face to face.
Paul was off work for seven months. Those days were rough. Some days were good, most were not. Paul had a continuous migraine, made worse from worrying about paying the bills. The stress for him was unbearable.
It is often normal for people with head injuries to drink more than usual, and for their personalities to change. We went through periods where he would get totally drunk and then apologize and promise not to get drunk again.
He was able to go back to work for the next six years. We had a new police chief by then. Paul and he constantly butted heads. However Paul did make detective, but he was given the job titles of (detective) Youth Detective, School Liaison Officer and Human Services Liaison Officer. Those extra jobs put a lot of stress on him, which caused constant headaches.
In the meantime, the drinking continued. He drank so he wouldn’t feel anything. He was stressed from his job and the finances, and for the first time our marriage was in trouble. We had so many arguments, something we rarely did. When anything went wrong, it was my fault. When our son threw a rock through the window, it was my fault. I had had enough.
I gave him an ultimatum; ‘it’s either the beer or me and the kids’. I was fully prepared to follow through. Thankfully, he chose us. He stopped drinking for a year. When he did drink again, he drank near beer.
Finally, after six years the stress broke him down. He was beginning to realize that he could no longer do his job properly. He was having problems with his short-term memory. He would have to take an early retirement and that was very hard on him. He loved his job. During the following few weeks he applied for disability. Many trips to doctors and psychologists determined him disabled. He was turned down twice for compensation, but was finally approved. Doctors reported that he had short-term memory loss, low fine processing skills, and low fine cognitive skills. Along with that were the intense headaches; he could no longer taste or smell, plus some hearing loss in his left ear.
During this time, our income was cut in half and we couldn’t pay our bills. We were now facing another devastation (losing our house) and were forced to file for bankruptcy. Again, I blamed that careless driver. If he wouldn’t have hit Paul, none of this would be happening. We would be living a ‘normal’ life. We didn’t ask for this, we did nothing wrong, and yet we’re the ones paying for his carelessness. I can’t forgive him for that.
It’s been eighteen years now and I still can’t look at the cause of all this when I see him. He has no idea what hell he has put our family through. After the accident, he bought a new truck with a brush guard on it, and a vulgar message on his bug guard. I found that act to be very offensive. It felt like he was thumbing his nose at us.
It has taken us nearly thirteen years to get back on our feet. Paul has been working part time at a local meat processing plant since 1997. I worked two jobs until recently. Currently I work fulltime with the school and previously I worked part time with CLC – Community Learning Center, now known as WIN – (What I Need), through the Boys and Girls Club.
By writing this, I am hoping to be able to put the past in the past. This experience did not break us; it only made us stronger. Not just Paul and our whole family, but me. I still feel angry. I can forgive but I’ll never forget. Some moments still feel like they happened yesterday.
I’ve slowly come to the realization that life’s too short to hold on to grudges. In the blink of an eye, you could lose everything you hold dear.
Live for the moment, enjoy what you have left, and appreciate the family and friends who have supported you and yours during the dark times.
Author: Shelly Hobson
Edited by: H –