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Ga. officer who lost leg sets site on returning to duty

By Yolanda Rodriguez
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

COBB COUNTY, Ga. — Michael McDaniel looked down at his Nikes, gripped the parallel bars and took a step.

Heel, toe. Heel, toe. Heel, toe.

"You're dragging your toe," said Jim Barnes, a clinical prosthetist in Atlanta, breaking the silence.

McDaniel, a Cobb County police officer, smiled. He relaxed and stepped again.

"Flex your hips, and the toe will follow," Barnes advised. "Pull up. Look up. Go to that special place and walk."

His son Jaiden, 3, stopped running and jumping around. He watched his father walk.

McDaniel's left leg was amputated in April. He was injured while he was investigating a traffic accident on Austell Road.

Now, months later, McDaniel is learning to walk again on what his sons call his "robot leg."

He wants to go back on patrol.

After he was injured, McDaniel explained to his oldest son, Camen, 5, that he was like the young Anakin Skywalker, whose limbs were severed in "Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith."

Dad lost his leg too, he told Camen.

"That made it a lot easier for him to take," said McDaniel, 34.

"He understood that the leg was gone. He told his little brother, 'Daddy has to get a new leg.'"

Accident, then a crash

The accident that changed McDaniel's life started simply enough.

On April 27, McDaniel was working a three-car fender bender on Austell Road, near South Cobb Drive.

He walked to the back of an ambulance to ask an injured driver one last question.

As he hauled himself onto the ambulance, he looked over his left shoulder. But it was already too late to get out of the way.

A 1996 Buick Regal barreled down on him.

"There was no gravel being run over," McDaniel, a cop since 2006, recalled. "No brakes being hit. No swerving."

The Buick hit the ambulance so hard that Amy Garrett, 30, an emergency medical technician with MetroAtlanta Ambulance Service, flew out.

Garrett crashed onto the Buick's windshield, leaving an imprint on the glass, said paramedic Cassie Dessonville, 28, her partner. Dessonville figures the driver was going at least 50 mph when she slammed into the ambulance. Both medical workers were treated at a local hospital and released.

Cobb police charged the driver, Doris Mellen, 87, with two misdemeanors: passing a stationary emergency vehicle and following too closely.

Her arraignment is scheduled for Tuesday in Cobb State Court.

McDaniel was pinned between the Buick and the ambulance. He was afraid that both of his legs were gone. When he was pulled away, McDaniel saw his left leg on the pavement.

But he could feel pain in his right leg. That was a good thing.

"It let me know I still had feeling in it," he said.

His wife of five years, Taneshia, 28, got the call no cop's wife ever wants.

"As soon as they say 'Officer Whoever,' my heart drops," she said. The couple met when they were both in the Air Force on the Japanese island of Okinawa.

Officers reassured her that McDaniel was OK. He was alert and talking.

"At least, I knew that he was still here," she said. "When you get the call, it's like — 'Oh, my God, it's happening.' It was not a good feeling. But, at the same time, he's going to make it. That superseded all other feelings."

A test case, perhaps

Cobb police Chief George Hatfield said McDaniel's accident was one of the worst that he has encountered in 36 years.

"It's a very difficult task to come back to work," Hatfield said.

As far as anybody in the department knows, this is the first time an amputee officer is trying to get back on full patrol duty.

To do so, McDaniel will likely have to pass a physical test.

Since this is a first for the department, the test requirements have to be worked out. McDaniel will probably have to run, bench press, lift weights and do sit-ups. He will also have to pass psychological tests.

It's unclear how many officers return to full duty after losing a limb.

But technology is making it possible. California Highway Patrol Officer Mike Remmel passed a series of physical tests and returned to full duty in August, 19 months after losing both his legs when he was hit by an elderly driver.

"All of this is very new," said Tom Marshall, a spokesman, for the California Highway Patrol.

Big adjustment

In the first days after the accident, McDaniel had to use a wheelchair at his west Cobb County home.

His right leg was fractured. He exercised his upper body and the knee joint of the severed limb to get it ready for the prosthesis.

Fellow officers and firefighters scrambled to help, doing everything from cleaning up the yard to changing light bulbs.

Taneshia, who works at Lockheed, halted the online courses she was taking toward her master's degree. Her mother, Ruby Durham, pitched in with the boys. A nurse was there for 12 hours a day.

McDaniel kept his eyes on one goal — going back on patrol.

He's wanted to be a cop since second grade. His teacher at Hollywood Elementary School in Alabama's Jackson County asked him what he wanted to be. "I said a police officer, so that I could help people."

Making progress

McDaniel went back to light duty in August, answering telephone calls at Cobb police headquarters.

The nurse is gone. Taneshia is taking one online course now with Colorado Technical University.

Two times a week, the couple travels to physical therapy sessions at WellStar Cobb Hospital.

Once there, McDaniel uses a hand bicycle to build up his stamina.

For strength and balance, he sits on a large therapy ball while Lauren Tiger, his physical therapist, stands behind him. She hands McDaniel a small rubber ball, which he must hand back from the opposite side.

"Whatever I ask, he does it," Tiger said.

His right leg is still in a cast. He's using a cane now and walking with his high-tech leg.

The leg has a pneumatic "bladder" — a purple ball that absorbs the shock of jumping and running.

"It's meant for very active people: running, jumping, twisting, pivoting," said Barnes, of Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics in Atlanta.

Growing up, McDaniel played baseball. He played basketball and some football in high school. The day before the accident he played softball on a friend's team. He wants to do that again.

He ambled toward a ballfield at Powder Springs Park recently to watch his sons play T-ball.

The new leg is "just another step," McDaniel said in the terse language of a police officer.

"My goal is to go back to a patrol car," he said.

Copyright 2007 Atlanta Journal Constitution

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