Colo. Police Embrace Paralyzed Chicago Officer

Posted: Thursday, September 10, 2009
Updated: September 10th, 2009 12:04 PM GMT-05:00

Chicago Tribune

Densey Cole II lay paralyzed almost 1,000 miles from where he works as a Chicago cop and had a visitor -- the police chief of Denver.

"He didn't just visit me, he saluted me," Cole said of Gerald Whitman. "That's the class act he is."

Officers in and around Englewood, Colo., where Cole has been treated since July for a spinal cord injury, think he is the class act and have adopted him and his wife, giving them tickets to concerts and sports contests and lending an old police cruiser.

The brotherhood was galvanized after learning Cole was hurt in a line-of-duty car crash. Authorities said he was threatened by a thief who took his police weapon as he was pinned in the wreckage.

Though far away from Craig Hospital, considered one of the best for patients with spinal cord and brain injuries, Chicago police also have rallied around, with some surprising Cole over the weekend with a visit.

"They call this the thin blue line, but it's obviously a wide blue line," said Tim O'Brien, a homicide detective who was among six officers -- part of the American Lawmen Motorcycle Club -- who rode in from Chicago. They joined dozens of Denver-area officers also on motorcycles.

"It's the brotherhood taking care of the brothers, no matter where they're from or where they are," said O'Brien.

Cole has been undergoing painful physical therapy five days a week and ended up in the intensive care unit for several days recently with pneumonia. That setback only seemed to make him more determined to work, his doctor said, adding that Cole could be released as early as Sept 23.

"He is never one to give up. He did not come here to sit and be injured; he came here to recover," said Dr. Gary Maerz, a specialist at Craig.

For someone used to being self-sufficient, the need for constant care has been tough.

"It's been miserably difficult," said Cole. "Everything you can imagine, I need help with. I can't bathe myself. I can't eat without help. I can't dress myself. I can't shower by myself."

But he continues to progress. When Cole first arrived at Craig, he had no movement in his extremities. Today, he is able to move his digits.

He can also lift his left hand with the help of a special support band, he said, almost all the way up to his face.

His wife, Mary, whom he married the month following the crash, has been by his side. She laments that they rarely get time alone.

"We might get a 10-minute conversation together between [medical personnel] coming in and out of the room, or we might get a meal together," she said. "But that is better than it was before when we wouldn't get five minutes together."

But she's grateful for the progress her husband has made and blogs about it:

"Densey is really doing physically better every single day. Unfortunately as his activities [therapies] increase so does a lot of the pain," she wrote in a July 31 entry.

"Big D still wants to fit 1,000 things in a day so when he is having a good day he will push it to the max, even just trying to move his body parts leading to a rough very sleepy evening."

Cole said that will and determination were instilled in him by his father, also a Chicago police officer.

"When we fell down, he expected us to get up on our own," Cole said. "My dad taught me not to give up."

Over time, Cole has been able to leave the hospital on day passes. Denver-area officers have given him tickets to Colorado Rockies' games, even the Broncos-Bears preseason game.

On Saturday, police blocked off a block of a suburban street near the hospital for a benefit for him and a Minnesota officer being treated at Craig.

"It's been unbelievable from day one," said Mary Cole. "They've picked up family members at the airport ... arranged for transportation. So many things I can't even tell you: money, meals, just being there.

"We've made some really great friends for life."

Cole arrived at the benefit to big applause, steering his motorized wheelchair with his left hand. He sat under a tent and talked with well-wishers who by midday numbered about 100.

"It's quite overwhelming. Didn't think it would be like this," said Cole of the turnout. "When they said they were going to have a barbecue I thought it would be like 10 guys sitting around eating cheeseburgers. Obviously this is beyond overwhelming."

Cole was especially pleased to spend the Labor Day weekend with his daughters, Stella, 10, and Hannah, 12, who live with his ex-wife.

"We're doing a slumber party in my room and I can't wait. ... My kids are eight hours away. That's been hard."

Several times during the benefit, his daughters raised the straw from a plastic water bottle to his lips so he could drink. They also adjusted his breathing tube when it slipped from his nostrils.

Hannah said hearing about her dad's accident and injuries "was a lot to cope with. ... But I'm very happy about his progress and excited to see what else he'll be able to do."

Jason Pearson, the Englewood officer who helped coordinate the benefit, said what happened to Cole struck a chord with many officers. On May 27, he was responding to a burglary call in his police sport-utility vehicle when he was involved in a three-vehicle crash. As he was pinned in the vehicle, authorities said, his 9mm Beretta was stolen from his holster by a man who threatened to kill him with his own gun.

"His story, the intensity of it, got people fired up and stirred up emotions. Police are used to being attacked. Police are used to accidents," said Pearson, who was in a serious accident in August, "but Densey's story and his ordeal made us all determined to help him."

Police officers say it's common for them to support brethren wherever they are. But in Denver, where injured officers from around the country come for treatment at Craig, there is an organized outreach coordinated by the Englewood Police Department.

Detective Mark Donahue, president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, said Craig has treated at least three other officers from around the country this year, and that the outpouring of support was there for them, too.

"We understand the job, the dedication, the oath we take to serve the people in the community," Donahue said. "The vast majority of us uphold that oath and have respect for others who do the same.

"It's heartwarming to see and something you can never see enough of," he said.

Sgt. John Maples, who went to Brother Rice High School with Cole and worked with Cole's father, saw the injured officer in July when he and his wife rode out to Colorado on their Harleys.

"With all that he is facing with his condition, he is still Densey," said Maples.

Cole continues to get cards and telephone calls from officers around the country.

"I get a lot of mail that starts out, 'You don't know me, but. ... ' Those are the best," Cole said. "I'd like to thank them all for their kind words."