This column first appeared on PoliceOne.com.
In Part 1 (September, p. 40), New York State Trooper Matt Swartz explained how a car crash cost him a leg and, as far as he could tell at the time, his career. Facing a life outside of law enforcement something he couldn't accept Matt set one difficult goal for himself: to be the first and only member of the New York State Police (NYSP) to go on full patrol with a prosthetic leg.
Many assumed it couldn't be done.
Doctors told Swartz that perhaps after a few years of rehabilitation therapy he could try to return to work. But by the time he left the hospital, Swartz had only a dwindling number of leave days remaining with the state police.
Fortunately, the blue family (actually grey in this case, given the NYSP's uniform color) kicked in to buy him time and opportunity. During his hospitalization, at least one trooper had stayed in or near his room 24 hours a day. While Swartz was comatose, dispatchers visiting his bedside spoke made-up radio calls into his ear in hopes of keeping his brain stimulated. Other cop volunteers had worked to finish his new house and got the couple s possessions packed and moved. Now, police families and organizations staged benefits to raise funds for his rehabilitation and medical needs, and troopers donated their own limited vacation days to his account, as permitted by NYSP regulations and consented to by the bosses. Soon he had a year s worth of leave at full pay he could draw on. A police chief in the area gave him passes to a swimming pool. One trooper whose son had left behind his workout gear when he went off to college donated an exercise bench, a squeeze grip and a couple of weights, humblingly puny dumbbells weighing only 2 lbs. and 5 lbs. It was a start, Swartz says.
He attacked with a vengeance. From other amputee officers he tracked down on the Internet, he learned which prostheses seem to work best on duty. The lighter the better, they recommended. He settled on a model that promised to put spring in my step, provide flexation and handle well on uneven ground. It consists of a socket (which attached with surprising comfort to his stump), a vertical carbon-fiber post and a foot that fits into an NYSP combat boot.
He located a therapist herself an amputee who was willing free of charge to push him through an extensive and in-depth rehab to build up his strength and range of capabilities with his new leg. Expanding his physical limits was pure evil, all about hurt, he remembers. But pain is weakness leaving the body, and that which doesn t kill us makes us stronger.
The therapist knew how to punch his buttons. She d have him watch her demonstrate an exercise with her prosthetic leg on some machine, then she d condescendingly offer to lighten the weight when it was his turn. Trooper friends played along. If they were around when I was practicing walking, they d say, Is that a little limp I m noticing there?
After walking got smooth and driving became possible, he started running running and running and running. Forrest Gump, the other troopers called him. He created a mantra: Go ahead and call me disabled. I ll give you a 10-second head start, then I ll run you down and show you what disabled really means!
In truth, even with much practice, it took him 16 minutes to run 1.5 miles. The annual NYSP fitness test requires its officers to run it in less than 11 minutes, plus sit-ups and push-ups.
He practiced doing sprints and slamming to a stop; he practiced jumping out of a patrol car and running a 40-yard dash; he practiced running stairs at a local factory. I can almost hear [the song] Eye of the Tiger playing in my head as I think back about that stuff, he laughs.
Scientific research proves a fake lower leg is 25 percent harder to run with, Swartz says, so to keep up with the guys who say they re 110 percenters I figured I had to be 125, maybe 130 percent. Someone s life could depend on my physical ability. I didn t want my fellow troopers screaming on the radio for help and thinking, Oh, no, Matt is coming. I want, Thank God, Matt is coming!
As he improved ( remarkably improved, doctors said), Swartz periodically visited his NYSP station to make sure his name was still carried on the assignment roster. He always wore long pants so anyone looking him over would see only two normal duty boots sticking out from under his pant legs. If he found his name missing from the list, he penciled it back in, a silent but emphatic reminder that he may be gone for awhile but shouldn t be forgotten.
Even though his captain had started running with him, showing support for his cause, Swartz says he could never get a specific answer from the NYSP brass as to what exactly he had to do to prove his fitness for duty. His reaction was to incorporate trooper-type feats into his workouts climbing fences, racing up steps, conducting foot pursuits, wading and swimming in creeks, executing emergency bailouts from a patrol car, carrying a wounded buddy on his shoulders. He documented all this with photographs that he kept in a recovery book, figuring a picture of proof is worth a thousand words of boasting.
In late summer, he geared up for the biggest challenge since he d left the hospital: requalifying as a volunteer firefighter. That required that he successfully complete a combat obstacle course, which included, among other things, running a 40-yard dash in five seconds (a college football player should do it in four), dragging a 180-lb. dummy, crawling through a tunnel in full gear and lugging a fire hose up flights of stairs.
Swartz finished the course in 12 minutes, with air left in his airpack.
Soon after, he completed an informal fitness test at the NYSP academy. He now clocked 1.5 miles under 12 minutes, plus 48 sit-ups and 52 push-ups extremely respectable considering the ordeal he d been through.
He sent a letter to the NYSP requesting return to duty. I m ready, he told himself, and if they say no, I m ready to fight to prove I am cap-able, not dis-abled.
Presently he was summoned to headquarters in Albany, N.Y., for an examination by a contract NYSP physician, an orthopedic surgeon. The doctor didn t want to see Swartz s recovery album, but he read questions from a two-page list that covered everything Swartz had anticipated: Can you quickly enter and exit a patrol vehicle? Can you engage in a foot pursuit with a fleeing suspect? Can you stand for long periods of time? Can you drive in inclement weather? and so on. And finally, Are you ready for full and strenuous duty?
Yes, I am, Swartz responded.
After the session his captain counseled that this was just one step in a process that would take time. Just relax and be patient, he said.
But two hours later, the captain phoned again. I don t know what you did, but you got somebody fired up, he said. Report to the station at 7 o clock Monday morning, understand? I hope you ve got a clean uniform, because you did it. You re back.
I was bawling my eyes out, Swartz recalls. My wife, too.
In another phone call that afternoon, his commanding major told him, You ll only get a half-issue of socks this winter! a joking reference to his amputated foot. Then on a serious note the major said that when Swartz had declined the NYSP s offer of disability retirement, We all thought, This poor kid doesn t even realize what s happened to him. Let s back off and give him time. It ll hit him eventually.
We never dreamed you could come back. We were wrong in thinking that, and you proved us wrong. You made us proud.
His first day back on patrol was Oct. 10, 2005 one month short of a year after the crash. Swartz was temporarily assigned to ride with a young trooper he d broken in as a field training officer. It was payback time, he says. He was calling me rookie, and sending me to fetch him coffee and drag a tree that was down in the road.
Since then, Swartz has handled the full range of trooper calls. He s worked in snowstorms and rainstorms, fought with suspects and chased suspects. He s won gold medals in his state s Police and Fire Olympics. He has taken the sergeant s exam, addressed academy classes on the will to survive and has been named a firearms instructor, one of about 120 out of New York s some 5,600 troopers.
But he s happiest where he s always been happiest on the road on full and strenuous duty, a one-man army in the remote reaches of the Empire State.