Double amputee returns to full duty as CHP officer
By Jocelyn Wiener – Bee Staff Writer
Published 12:00 am PDT Thursday, September 20, 2007
Three days after the January 2006 crash that cost him both legs, California Highway Patrol Officer Mike Remmel began focusing on one goal: He was determined to return to work.
While many were awed by his tenacity, some saw his plan as a long shot. The CHP had never had a double amputee on full patrol duty before. In order to be cleared, Remmel would have to pass 14 physical tests, including sprinting 100 yards in 20 seconds or less.
On Wednesday evening, Remmel walked — stiff-legged on his prosthetics — to the front of the California Highway Patrol Academy’s gymnasium in West Sacramento. He looked out at 300 serious-looking cadets in blue uniforms and shorn heads.
"Soon you are going to learn how hard it is to do the everyday duty of a highway patrolman," he told them. "Hopefully you will never have to work as hard as I did."
With that, he began his story.
Around dusk on Jan. 10, 2006, Remmel lay on the side of the road, bleeding and broken. A future in law enforcement seemed well nigh impossible; survival itself lay in doubt.
Remmel, now 47, had been directing traffic around a non-injury car accident on Highway 49, near Sonora. An elderly woman, miscalculating the route, had driven her car into him at 45 mph, crushing his left leg and severing his right foot. His body flew 23 feet. Then: blinding pain.
A tow truck driver on the scene bound Remmel’s legs, creating tourniquets out of a belt and a camera strap. A helicopter rushed him to the hospital.
He would later say he saw heartbreak in the eyes of a fellow officer and understood he might soon be dead.
The next morning he was alive. But his legs were gone — the right above the ankle; the left above the knee.
On those legs, Remmel had spent 19 years walking to drivers’ windows. On those legs, too, he had backpacked and golfed and run.
Without the legs, Remmel decided, he was going to do those very same things.
And so the process began.
He did two hours of physical therapy each day. He crawled away in exhaustion from each excruciating session. But he learned to walk. And then to run.
He was outfitted with specially designed prosthetic legs to enable him to get behind the wheel of a patrol vehicle. His left leg was fitted with a state-of-the-art computerized knee.
One year after the accident, on Jan. 10, 2007, Remmel returned to limited duty desk work.
But he kept pushing. In order to return to patrol, he had to pass a number of physical tests. First he showed his bosses that he could sidestep. Then he ran 500 yards in 2 minutes.
Finally, in mid-July, the last test: He sprinted 100 yards in less than 20 seconds.
On Aug. 10, he was cleared for full patrol.
During all that time, local news outlets broadcast stories about his recovery effort. His commander, who sat with him in the ambulance the night of the accident, had encouraged him to bring his story to the public. Lt. Mike Ayala wanted people to draw inspiration from Remmel, and to put their own problems in perspective.
On Wednesday night, before Remmel addressed the cadets, local news crews gathered in front of the CHP Academy.
Ayala used a bucketful of adjectives to describe Remmel: Amazing. Miraculous. Inspirational.
Remmel got out of the black and white cruiser and walked toward the phalanx of reporters and television cameramen. Then he got back into the car, and back out, so they might film from a different angle.
He looked slightly uncomfortable surrounded by all those microphones.
"This is a little overwhelming," he said at one point, with a hesitant smile.
"My goal is to get my anonymity back," he said. "I just want to be another tan uniform out on the road." OOOH_RAH!