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Returning to Work After An Injury In the Line of Duty

Sgt. Lee Gragg works hard in rehabilitation to return to work in just four months.

Lee Gragg always wanted to be a police officer, so it was no surprise when soon after being injured in the line of duty, his thoughts centered on returning to work.

The fact that he’s wearing a badge again in Palmetto, Ga., is stunning, though. After Lee flew like a bird and landed like a melon on Sept. 12, 2009, the fight was to survive, not work. Quickly after being thrown from a suspect’s car at 80 miles an hour and landing on his head, Lee went into cardiac arrest at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital. Doctors resuscitated him, but a traumatic brain injury and a shattered face topped a list of injuries.

He couldn’t talk, walk or do much else. Yet, he’s back on the beat in a small town about 25 miles southwest of Atlanta, working full time to the point where he says, “I don’t see myself going anywhere else.”

Not long after transferring to Shepherd Center on Oct. 9, 2009, Lee inquired with Palmetto Deputy Chief John Cooper and other colleagues about work. Here was a 6-foot-2-inch, 250-pound guy who could barely speak. Yet he found a way to ask.

Most amazingly, Lee, now 41, was at work four months after landing in a heap. It was initially just four hours twice a week and working “over property and evidence” – not as intense as his previous duty in the Crime Suppression Unit, but still it had only been four months since his injury.

“It’s beyond reasoning,” Cooper says of the comeback. “The rehabilitation at Shepherd Center did him wonders. I’ve heard it takes years to get over this. It was pretty bad.”

With Lee in a coma for two weeks at Grady, his body underwent reconstruction. He’d sustained a T-7 spine fracture and broken several ribs, lost vision in his left eye and damaged nerves in his right arm. And a massive rebuild was required from the neck up.

“Basically, every bone in his face was broken,” says Lee’s wife, Shelly. The same was true on the inside:  Lee’s palates were wrecked, his tear ducts were crushed and neither eye was in the right place.

On went the rebuild. Upon waking, Lee’s motor skills and cognitive abilities were diminished.

By the time he transferred to Shepherd Center, Lee had undergone many of the 26 surgeries (which have continued) he’s had. At Shepherd Center, physiatrist Gerald Bilsky, M.D., soon discovered that, after adjusting Lee’s medications, Lee was cognitively ahead of where most people are at that point in rehabilitation.

With help from Dr. Bilsky and the rest of his Shepherd Center treatment team, Lee had to relearn how to walk, talk and eat. “I couldn’t even chew,” he recalls. “Food would just fall out.”

Initially, former Shepherd Center patient Sgt. Lee Gragg returned to work at the Palmetto Police Department south of Atlanta in a limited role. Over the next year, he ramped up to full time. Now, he’s a sergeant in the Criminal Investigations Division and a public information officer.

Lee has intermittent memory issues, and no recollection of the accident. Fellow officers fill in details. Of that fateful day he does recall that, “my son had his first baseball game,” he says. “Jake was 7.”

A few hours later, Lee and fellow officers were hoping to catch a drug runner.

“We got a tip from the DEA that a guy was going to be coming through with methamphetamine, and I set up a road check because I was sergeant over the Crime Suppression Unit,” he says.

As it was getting dark, officers first stopped another motorist. Lee intervened.

“He had a suspended license and a warrant for his arrest,” he says. “I went over to take it up. Everybody tells me he said, ‘I’m not going back to jail,’ and he reached for something on the floorboard of the car. I reached down through the window to stop him.”

The driver hit the gas, dragging Lee. About 300 yards later, the car hit a brick mailbox. “I went flying and landed on my head,” he says. “They say I went higher than a power line.”

The driver died. The sergeant had his heart restarted at Grady.

Four weeks later, Lee transferred to Shepherd Center to restart his life.

The spinal fracture healed, but Lee’s brain injury required more intense rehabilitation, Dr. Bilsky says. Lee underwent speech, physical, occupational and recreation therapies, including music therapy, and a driver rehabilitation course to teach him how to drive again.

In November 2009, Lee went home to Douglasville, near where he grew up on Atlanta’s west side. He became a Shepherd Pathways outpatient, and the Graggs, now married 20 years with a 17-year-old daughter (Hannah) and 11-year old son (Jake), immersed themselves in Lee’s rehabilitation.

“They’re incredibly good together,” Dr. Bilsky says of the couple. “I tell families there are four parts:  First, the medical side has to do the right things; the therapy and nursing support has to be there; the support of family and friends is critical; and the fourth is out of our control.

“Call it luck, Mother Nature, powers that be, fate,” Dr. Bilsky adds. “There’s got to be something. To a certain extent, he was lucky because it could have easily been a fatal injury.”

On Jan. 12, 2010, Lee returned to work in a limited role. Over the next year, he ramped up to full time. Now, he’s a sergeant in the Criminal Investigations Division and a public information officer.

No doubt, Lee is different now. He forgot the way home from work once, buying a GPS to remedy that. Shelly worries about her husband’s loss of vision to the left.

“I’ve learned to adapt,” he says. “I write notes, even at home, or keep it on my phone. I can tell you about work or music, but I don’t remember getting married. I have headaches pretty bad. That’s probably the main complaint besides memory loss.”

The experience has been an evolution, but some things haven’t changed.

“He’s an extraordinary person, a good one to have on your side,” Deputy Chief Cooper says. “I learned in Vietnam that there are some who, when the going gets tough, they get going harder, and that’s Lee.”

He is a different kind of cop. He’s now a detective in charge of other detectives rather than running a drug task force.

“My days of running after folks, the crime suppression, that’s a done deal,” Lee says. “I still do search warrants, but I let others make entries while I observe and supervise. Stopping cars and doing traffic stops, I’m not going to do that any more.

“I’ve learned that no matter how bad off you may be, there is somebody else worse off. To look at people who didn’t have the opportunity to recover as well as I did – especially if they didn’t have the opportunity to go to Shepherd Center – that puts it in perspective for me.”

Written by Matt Winkeljohn
Photography by Gary Meek

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.