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July 15, 2007
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A long way home: a Chicago officer recovers from a car crash

By Sheila Ahern
The Chicago Daily

CHICAGO — Tim Sheehan awoke from a nine-week coma a White Sox fan.

He didn’t know his wife or three children. He didn’t know why he was in the hospital or why he was in so much pain.

His family wrote, “A big White Sox fan” on the patient form next to his bed.

Nurses, trying to help him connect with his life before the coma, chatted about the 2005 World championship.

Still hooked up to monitors and tubes and unable to speak, Tim shook his head. “No way,” he thought. “I love the Sox, but my team hasn’t won a championship for 80 years.”

It was April 2006.

On Feb. 15, 2006, Sheehan, an Arlington Heights police officer, was starting his 10:30 p.m. shift at Northwest Highway and Euclid Avenue, when a drunken driver hit Sheehan’s squad car dead on.

The impact crushed the right side of Sheehan’s body, breaking most of his bones from his pelvis down. It damaged his brain, affecting his speech, memory and vision.

Sheehan’s had 10 surgeries, with more coming. Fifty-three pieces of metal have been put in his body to repair the broken bones.

Gone is any memory of the accident and the weeks before it. He has no memory of  being extracted from the crushed metal and rushed away.

A few blocks away, the phone rang at the quiet Sheehan home.

Tim’s wife, Maryann, answered.

Maryann remembers everything.

Around 10:15 p.m. Tim left for his shift. A few minutes later, he flew in the back door and grabbed his flashlight off the kitchen counter.

Their daughter, Katie, 17, slept upstairs. Sons Mark and Mike were at college.

Tim smiled at his wife, busy at their computer, and ran back out.

Fifteen minutes later, the phone rang. Maryann saw “Village of Arlington Heights” on the caller ID and thought, “What did Tim forget now?” Outside, sirens wailed.

Maryann picked up the phone, still sporting a tan from their Bahamas vacation — their first trip without the kids. Red and white tulips Tim gave her for Valentine’s Day sat on the kitchen table.

“Maryann, Tim’s been in an accident,” an officer said.

Still in work clothes, Maryann threw keys and her cell phone into her purse. She decided not to wake Katie. It probably was minor. At worst, maybe Tim broke a leg.

The squad that picked her up flew down Northwest Highway toward Advocate Lutheran General Hospital. From the front seat, Maryann realized they were on an empty highway — squads with flashing lights blocked the cross streets from Arlington Heights to Park Ridge as they sped past.

“No one ever said how bad it was,” she said. “All anyone said is he’s going to be fine. No one ever said to me he might not make it.”

When the kids got to the hospital, they weren’t prepared for what they saw.

“His eyes were swollen shut and there was dried blood everywhere,” said Mike, 24. “Tubes coming out of his mouth and metal posts through his legs.”

Katie tried to go to Hersey High School that morning. But at the last minute she turned around and darted back to her dad’s side.

She’s never really left.

In the Sheehan family room, Katie still sticks close to her dad. She hears his stomach growl and whispers in his ear, “Hungry?”

He nods and pats her hand.

Katie plans to study nursing at Elmhurst College this fall.

Tim’s injuries were so severe doctors induced a coma, putting his brain to sleep. In the first few days after an injury, the body’s repair mechanism kicks in. But swelling is dangerous — it can cut off blood flow to the brain and kill healthy tissue. So doctors worked to reduce pressure and swelling.

While Sheehan was in the coma, doctors repaired a skull fracture and lacerated aorta. They operated on his knee, hip, ankle and leg. At one stretch, he had five surgeries in eight days.

Police, firefighters, friends and family packed the waiting room, sometimes more than 30 at once. As Tim slept, they’d jot notes to him in a notebook Arlington Heights Sgt. Michael F. Kearney bought, vowing to help him get better, sharing Sox trade rumors and offering humor.

“I think you went a little overboard here to get out of your quarterly evaluation,” one colleague wrote.

Kearney wrote about getting the call. “Yeah, I’ll admit I cried a little (but it was only because I had something in my eye.) Then I started thinking what a tough, stubborn, opinionated Irishman you are and knew you would fight through this healing process.”

Tim’s tight-knit family — a police family (two brothers on the Chicago force and dad, Bob, just retired after 40 years) — and friends had come together for Tim

“Tim was as close to dead as you can get. I think everyone knew that,” said his mom, MaryAnn, who still can’t talk about the accident without tearing up.

Tim woke up nine weeks later. While in the coma, he had a stroke, causing partial paralysis. His vision was blurred. He breathed through a ventilator and his only food came through a tube.

“I woke up and didn’t know what happened, why I was in the hospital,” he said. “My family was there and I didn’t know them.”

Horrible hiccups shook his body, a reaction to the tracheotomy.

More surgeries. Then, a team of five specialists stepped in to help move Sheehan from there back into the world.

They weaned him off the ventilator. At first he couldn’t speak so they taught him to blink once for yes, twice for no. They showed him pictures of his family.

From time to time his left leg would thrash violently, telling doctors he was in pain. At first, the pain was so bad, after 15 minutes of trying to sit up he would start shaking and sweating.

He’d tell his wife repeatedly, “Maryann, I need more quarters.” He meant pillows.

“It’s like taking a full cabinet and dumping it on the floor and mixing it around,” said Sarah Russell, Sheehan’s speech therapist. “All of the info is still there, it’s just hard to find.”

Memory returned slowly. After a few weeks, Tim recognized Katie, but couldn’t differentiate Mark from Mike.

“People have this idea about coming out of a coma, that it happens like that,” said his physical therapist Kelly Snow. “It’s not.”

Sheehan’s family was patient, even when he would lose his temper. Along with his memory, Tim’s sense of humor returned too.

“I’ve been in love with that woman for 23 days,” he told nurses, pointing at Maryann, who almost never left his hospital room.

He had a lot to learn, like shaving with his left hand. He practiced balancing a checkbook, ordering pizza and calling Blockbuster to check the cost of renting a DVD.

“Tim still doesn’t have all his memory back,” said Sue Nott, his occupational therapist. “He might get a little better, but he won’t ever be the same person.”

Maryann keeps track of his schedule and medications. She helps him get dressed.

When Tim reaches for words he used to know, Maryann fills them in. When he starts a story, she’ll finish it.

There is no pause and Tim lets her.

Today, the Sheehan home shows signs of normal activity. Katie’s off to a concert. Mike swings by for a Coke after a workout. Calendars plaster the refrigerator and the kitchen drawers are open about an inch.

Before Tim came home, Arlington Heights police and firefighters built Sheehan a ramp along the side of the house. They also converted the garage into a bedroom complete with a bathroom where Tim sleeps.

Today, Sheehan does crosswords, surfs the Web. Bob and MaryAnn come out from Chicago to stay with him two days a week while Maryann goes to her job at the park district. They sit in the family room and watch “Law and Order.”

“We’re retired so we have time,” said MaryAnn. “Plus we get to hang out with Tim.”

Most of his memory is back, albeit with blank spots. He knows his way around Arlington Heights, but not street names.

A flat screen television, a framed letter from White Sox third baseman Joe Crede and a huge poster signed by every member of the 2005 White Sox hang on the wall. Photos of Tim in his bagpipe band uniform mix with physical therapy equipment on the fireplace mantle.

Tim’s got the DVD set of 2005 Sox playoff games on a family room shelf, showing you can relive your past even if you can’t remember it.

But Sheehan is far more concerned about his future. He probably won’t play the bagpipes again or return to the police department.

But, “Am I going to walk? Oh yeah, for sure,” said Tim, who is 50. “I mean, I’m only one guy. Everyone did all this for one guy. I want to walk again to show everyone.”

In May, from his wheelchair he spoke to more than 100 Notre Dame High School boys about his accident and how wearing his seat belt saved his life.

Despite all that happened, Tim was still a police officer — one who teenage boys respected and feared.

“Guys, just wear your seat belts,” Tim said. “Wear your seat belts and slow down. I’m not kidding.”

After Tim’s talk, the boys silently filed out, each with a key chain showing a photo of Tim’s crumpled squad car on one side and one word printed on the back.


Full story: A long way home: a Chicago officer recovers from a car crash

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