April 28, 2003
Police officer back at work after traumatic brain injury
By Susan Christensen
Health and Research News Service
JACKSON, Miss.—He’ll be behind a desk, rather than astride his beloved Harley Davidson police package motorcycle. And he’ll be doing “light duty,” a strange concept for a man so energetic that he used to cut firewood just to get in a workout.
But while much will be different when Jackson Police Officer Warren Hull arrives for work on Wednesday, fellow officers can expect to see their buddy “Soul” flash his trademark killer smile.
After seven months spent fighting to recover from an almost fatal motorcycle accident, Hull knows his return to work is truly a triumph.
“It’s a victory anytime you can get someone who has had a serious brain injury back to work,” said Nik Carnathan, an occupational therapist at Quest, an outpatient program at Methodist Rehabilitation Center in Jackson that helps people with brain injuries regain independence and return to work or school. “Warren is a hard worker and very cooperative and that has helped him have a good recovery.”
Hull, 49, jokes that his middle initial E. stands for “ever-ready” and that has been his style throughout therapy. Whether he’s lifting weights in the gym or solving math problems, Hull gives it his all.
“I truly wish we could bottle that energy and give it to some of our other clients,” said Quest coordinator Joyce Leverenz. “When such a catastrophic thing happens, a lot of people get down. But he never seems that way. He has such a positive attitude.”
As he contemplates returning to work, the 28-year veteran of the force says he’s “just a little nervous.” “But I’ll love being able to see my coworkers again,” Hull said. “I just hope they don’t think anything about it if I don’t know all their names.”
Memory can be elusive for victims of a brain injury, explained Carnathan. “Ever had a hard day and said I can’t even think straight? It can be like that for them. They have to work to improve their attention much like you would to improve physical endurance.”
There is one memory, however, that Hull doesn’t want to retrieve. He can’t recall anything about his traumatic accident on Sept. 12, 2002, and so far has turned down any offers to view his mangled motorcycle.
While Hull can’t remember that day, fellow officer James J. Hannah can’t forget it. Not even years as an accident reconstruction investigator prepared Hannah for the sight of his best friend lying on the pavement, eyes open, but unseeing.
“I’ve worked thousands of traffic accidents and I’ve seen people die,” Hannah said. “The way he looked … it didn’t look like the injury was survivable. It was like an angel of death was right there with him.
“I had to step back. When I saw it was him, it was the first and only case I couldn’t do.”
Hannah said Hull was responding to a call when a van turned left in front of him, and he hit the vehicle’s front right fender and bumper. The impact broke the frame and forks on the cycle and cracked Hull’s helmet.
“Police Chief Robert Moore came and we tried to get the ambulance out as fast as we could,” Hannah said. “I went on to the hospital, saying prayers all the way there.”
At the hospital, doctors discovered Hull had broken his pelvis, damaged his left jaw and cheek bone and suffered a severe head injury. The bones they could repair. Brain injuries aren’t so easily fixed.
“It’s a longer recovery process because the brain doesn’t heal at same rate as other body parts,” Leverenz said. So the challenge for medical staff is to help the patient retain and regain as much function as possible while the brain slowly heals itself.
When Hull arrived at Methodist Rehabilitation Center on Oct. 8, his list of impairments was long. The brain injury had affected his vision, speech, reasoning, memory and caused excessive weakness on his left side.
“At first, there was a lot of confusion, he had problems with orientation, short-term memory and attention span,” said Methodist Rehab speech therapist Stephanie Stone.
“And he was real restless. So we talked about how it felt to ride his motorcycle, and I would push him around in his wheelchair so he could feel the wind in his hair. It was a joke because his head had been shaved.”
A well-known cut-up at the police station, Hull responded well to humor. “If you can’t smile or laugh a little bit, you’re in hard trouble,” he said.
Therapists said Hull also seemed to like an audience, which wasn’t a problem. Hull’s wide circle of family, friends and coworkers were frequent visitors.
“That really helps with the rehab process,” said Methodist Rehab occupational therapist Susan Kimble. “You get to know the person he was previously, so you can come up with therapy better suited to his style.”
“It was great when he would have visitors,” agreed Stone, one of several therapists who involved Hull’s friends in his therapy sessions. “They would tell a favorite story and that gave me personal information to have him recall.”
At times, so many gun-toting officers were helping out that staff joked that some patients must have thought the hospital was using excessive force to achieve therapy goals.
But Hull didn’t need to be leaned on. “I like to push myself,” he said. “Whenever I saw that I couldn’t do something, it was a challenge to do it like I used to.”
“The doctor had said it would be six months before he could consider walking,” Hannah said. “But around Thanksgiving, I went by to see him and before I left, he said: ‘Hold on, buddy.’ He stood up for me and then he walked me outside. He hadn’t told me he was walking. It only took him two months.”
Over in the JPD Traffic Division, Sgt. Maurice Kendrick said everyone is eagerly anticipating Hull’s return. “We’re looking forward to having fun with him like we always do. We’re going to put him handling accident follow-ups and doing supplementary reports. We think he is going to do great.”
Leverenz has those expectations, as well. “When people go back to work we see them improve and it’s dramatic in some cases,” she said.
Therapy at Quest has been readying Hull for the transition back to work. He has learned to use a planner and checklists to help him with organization, scheduling and memory. And he has improved his stamina and strength through physical therapy.
Hull also has been strengthened by the emotional support from other Quest participants, who provide been-there, done-that empathy for the struggles of everyday life.
“People take care of you in the hospital, so clients often don’t understand the extent of their deficits until they go home,” Leverenz said. “It becomes real when they have trouble with simple things like brushing their teeth because they can’t get the motion right or because the brush feels different in their hands. That’s why it’s so important for them to get in a program like Quest and to have support from staff and the people who have been through it.”
Hull will continue to receive therapy at Quest even after he returns to work. While he adjusts to his new role on the police force, Hull also will have on-the-job help from Quest occupational therapist Charlene Toney.
“I’ll be there as much as I can in the beginning,” Toney said. “If he has a problem, I can offer compensation strategies, such as making lists and taking notes. The main thing is to help ensure he has a successful return to work.”
Hull is grateful for the support. “Without Methodist Hospital and the staff there, I wouldn’t be in the shape I am now,” Hull said.
While Hull realizes that reclaiming his spot in the motorcycle corps is probably unrealistic, he does hope to ride a motorcycle again, if only a short jaunt down the street. But for now, he’s content to do what attracted him to police work in the first place. “I always liked helping people if I could,” he said. “And I always thought coming back to the police force would be just a matter of time.”
Police officer Warren Hull exercises at Methodist Rehabilitation Center to regain his strength following a traumatic brain injury.