Photo Courtesy: Below 100, not related to this story and not a fatal collision.
Have you ever looked back during your career and asked yourself “was that worth it?” I have asked myself that question numerous times during my 17 year police career. I challenge you to ask yourself “IS it worth it”as opposed to how I had to ask myself “WAS it worth it.”
When I was a young officer I never asked myself this question, ever. I did risky things and just thought my training would get me through, or the fact that I’m 6’3 and roughly 300 lbs. I had the ability to physically get myself out of a situation if I got “in to deep.” I was also fortunate to work for an agency that was tight knit, and always had officers willing to back me up.
The department I worked for when I was first hired was a busy agency with a variety of crimes, and an active calls for service list. Like most new officers, I was going to prove my worth to the agency and conduct traffic enforcement. I was going to change the driving of our residents one or two tickets at a time. Of course traffic enforcement is a very dangerous activity but in my case it was more dangerous because of the driving tactics that I used to catch up to the actual traffic violator. Often, officers that are new in this career or “calling” believe that other drivers will just move out of the way of an approaching squad car and that is rarely the case.
It took me a few years to realize that I’m no where near invincible and that my stature alone was not going to keep me alive. I needed a major eye opening event to show me this and sadly it took a few small incidents which should have snapped me back into reality or should have shown me that my choices were risky and I needed to slow down and ask myself “is it worth it?” In my first three years as a police officer I was involved in three traffic collisions. All were traffic enforcement related and with each event the result was worse.
First there was a minor collision pulling out of a parking lot to go after a speed violator. Second, I went against a red light (with lights and sirens activated) and another driver didn’t see me due to my unmarked squad car and the fact I didn’t take the time to slow down and ensure that cross traffic had stopped. And lastly the event I really want to dive into, was my third collision that could have been my final act in life and an act that I should have asked myself, “is it worth it?”
I will never forget that day. On October 10, 2003, around 3 pm, I was sitting in a parking lot across from a local high school speaking with some of the students as they finished their school day. I observed a blue colored Subaru traveling eastbound at a high rate of speed. I pulled onto the roadway and proceeded after the Subaru. As I accelerated I recall thinking how good of a ticket this was going to be. As I attempted to catch up to this driver my speed continued to increase. Suddenly, out of nowhere was a small red colored car parallel in front of me in my lane of traffic. The vehicle pulled out from a side street and attempted to go in the opposite direction that I was. That is when the situation turned to slow motion. I recall seeing the driver of this vehicle, it was a young female, I could see the “oh shit” look on her face as she stopped in my lane of traffic to ensure that she could safely cross the roadway. I also recall my split-second choice to swerve to the right, off the roadway to avoid striking her car directly on the driver’s side door, which probably would have killed her. I swerved to the right and left the roadway, and struck a tree. The tree split the push bumpers perfectly.
The impact was violent. There was no air bag deployment. I remember thinking, I could of killed that girl. I immediately called dispatch via the radio and advised them of the collision I was involved in. I remember there was a nurse (who was a passerby) who was immediately talking to me. I thought I was ok, I was unable to get out of the squad car but I wasn’t in any pain and wasn’t bleeding. The fire department arrived and it was learned quickly that the impact with the tree caused the floor board of the squad car to wrap around my right boot so I couldn’t get out of the car. The fire department continued to ask me how I felt and if anything hurt. My response continued to be the same, “my right foot is stuck, if you guys could free that I will be good.” Well needless to says, they freed my foot and the fire department instructed me to go ahead an get out of the car. I raised myself to get out of the car and immediately felt the worse pain I had ever felt on my right side. The fire department personnel got me onto the stretcher and into a nearby ambulance and it was then I realized my injury was far worse than I had thought. I could look down while on the stretcher and see that my right leg was obviously shorter than my left. This was the beginning of what I thought might be the end of my police career.
I was brought to the local hospital and had surgery to put a stabilizing rod in my right knee so my leg could be placed in traction. Once I woke up from the surgery is when I was told that I shattered my right pelvis. I was told by the doctor that it was his opinion that when I slammed on the brakes my foot slipped off the brake peddle and was against the floor board of the squad car when impact was made. He further told me that my right leg took the entire impact. He went on to say that since my right leg was locked in a straight position that the ball of my hip joint had exploded through my pelvis. This is what caused my right leg to be shorter than my left. This is also when I was told I may never walk again.
All I could think of is that I am 29 years old, I need to be able to walk. I was told due to the extent of the injury I sustained and the swelling within my hip, nothing else could be done until the swelling went down.
As days passed, my dad finally asked the doctor if there was a better hospital that could treat this type of injury or if there was another doctor we could get a second opinion from. We were told that there was a trauma center nearby that had a young doctor that specialized in traumatic hip fractures and would probably be better suited to repair my injury. I was transported there and within a few days went into surgery and the hip was repaired. I still had no idea what all would be needed to have a complete recovery.
Shortly after surgery I learned that I would not be able to put any weight on my right leg for three months. I was transferred to a rehab facility on Halloween. Let me clarify, rehab facility was a polite way of telling a 29-year-old man that he was going to a nursing home. While at this facility I had a lot of time to reflect. Of course, my family, girlfriend (who is now my wife) and coworkers stopped in regularly to check in on me, but there were still hours of time alone to reflect. I had decided during the hours I spent alone reflecting that I was going to bust my ass and fight to get back to work. I was constantly told by my doctors that there are no promises to if I would be able to walk normal, have a limp, or even be able to walk period. My recovery depended on how hard I worked. That was all I needed to hear. I was a college football player and had played sports my whole life. I knew what hard work was. And I was going to work harder than ever before to beat the odds.
I spent three months in the rehab facility. I spent Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years all in the same place. My days consisted of therapy twice a day and every task of my day to day life was a chore. To get out of bed, I needed to call a nurse and everything I wanted or needed required assistance. This forced me to spend the rest of the day within my room in bed. I never left my room (even for meals) except to go to therapy. I had nothing in common with the other patients within this facility and the closest person to me age was probably 50 years older than me. I continued to work for three months. As I spent time in this facility my coworkers visiting went from daily to weekly to finally getting text messages and phone calls. This slow but steady change gave me more and more time alone, time to think, and time to question a lot of things. To say it was enjoyable is an understatement. This was probably the darkest time of my life.
I was released just before the Super Bowl and I knew there was still hard work to come. I was cleared to return to go back to work in May 2004.
My first night back to work, I made a traffic stop, and while speaking to the driver, he sped off. I was thinking that you have to be kidding me. I just spent months of grueling rehabilitation to come back to work only to have another violator speed off from me and secondly, I asked what i should have been asking from the first day after graduating the police academy, “is it worth it?”
I told myself no that day and reported the drive off from my traffic stop to dispatch and turned my squad around and went the other way.
Since returning to work in 2004, I have kept a picture of my wrecked squad car in my locker. When I got promoted and got an office I framed it and placed it on top of my file cabinet as a reminder to ask myself THE question any day I’m at work, “is it worth it?” I have shared my story with most of my coworkers when they ask about the picture. If they can learn from my errors then we are paying it forward right?
As I conclude, I want to ask each of you a sincere question.
“Is it worth it?”
Rodney Erb is a 21 year public service veteran. He is currently a Sergeant with the Lakemoor, Illinois Police Department. Rodney’s daily tasks include overseeing the operations division of his agency. Rodney is also a certified firearms and less lethal instructor. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice from Aurora University and is also a graduate of the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety School of Staff and Command.