A Force of Inspiration
Ten years ago today, NYPD Traffic Officer Tarrell Lee was in a coma. After being hit by a car while on duty, Tarrell was rushed to NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell where doctors discovered fractures in his leg, ankle and pelvis. His wounds developed deadly infections that caused his body to become septic. To save his life, the medical team had to amputate his right leg below the knee.
With the enduring support of his family, friends and colleagues, as well as his own extraordinary perseverance, Tarrell, who still works for the NYPD, was able to overcome his injuries and is now enjoying his life more than ever. To mark the 10th anniversary of Tarrell’s accident, we take a look back at his inspiring story.
On September 12, 2005, NYPD Traffic Officer Tarrell Lee’s life was changed forever. A recent graduate of the academy, he was directing traffic at the corner of 60th Street and York Avenue in Manhattan when a wrong turn nearly killed him.
Tarrell Lee: It was just like a regular day for me. I was actually relatively new to the force. I was directing traffic, and I saw a car about to make an illegal turn. The next thing I knew, there was commotion everywhere and I felt like I was going to die.
The car had collided with a truck, which in turn collided with Tarrell, causing him to be pinned to a concrete barrier. Emergency crews were quickly dispatched and he was rushed to NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center’s emergency room a few blocks away at 68th Street and York Avenue.
Dr. Dean Lorich, Director of Orthopaedic Trauma Service at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell, was brought in to treat Tarrell.
Dr. Lorich: I first saw Tarrell in the surgical intensive care unit. Despite having fractures in his right leg and pelvis, he was awake at the time. His bones weren’t the issue though. He had lost a lot of blood and he had extensive damage to the tissue in his leg, which was causing his muscles to die.
Dr. Soumitra Eachempati, director of the hospital’s surgical intensive care unit, was also one of the first doctors to treat Tarrell after he arrived.
Dr. Eachempati: Tarrell was in bad shape. We gave him 20 units of blood immediately because he had already lost so much blood and his blood pressure was very low. At that point, our goal was to try to prevent infection and improve his vascular function. He was extremely lucky that this happened close to NewYork-Presbyterian, because if he had been farther than 8 blocks away, there’s a chance he would have died on his way to the hospital.
“I really thought I was going to die. When you’re confronted with your mortality, certain emotions come up and you see things differently. All I remember thinking was that I want to be able to see my little brother grow up.” — Tarrell
Shortly after the accident, Tarrell’s family arrived at the hospital to be by his side. His mother, Deborah, didn’t know the extent of his injuries or that Tarrell’s doctors were considering amputating his leg.
Deborah: Initially, I had heard that Tarrell had been in an accident and that he had a broken ankle and a broken leg, as well as some fractures in his pelvis. I went there to visit him and act as his healthcare proxy, but I didn’t realize that I’d be talking to his doctor’s about bringing him into a medically induced coma. What followed was the longest month of my life.
Dr. Eachempati: We had to bring him into a medically induced coma to control his vascular injuries. We were able to control these somewhat, but the damage to his leg was extensive. We knew we were going to have to talk to his mom about the possibility of amputation.
Deborah: The doctors told me that Tarrell’s body was septic, and I knew there were a lot things going on with him. He was on dialysis, he had had a tracheotomy…the doctors said that if we don’t do this, there’s a good chance he won’t survive. I decided to follow their recommendations and have them take the leg, but I was afraid that Tarrell would be angry with me.
It was a heart-wrenching decision for a mother to have to make for her son. With Tarrell still in a coma, the medical team began preparing Tarrell’s leg for amputation.
Dr. Lorich: At a certain point, thoughts of saving the leg became detrimental to his care and potential quality of life. We set a goal of saving the leg below the knee. Our ultimate aim was to give him a chance at getting back to his life before the accident.
Dr. Eachempati: We knew that the more of his leg we could save, the more likely it was that Tarrell could have a normal recovery. At a certain point, you have to consider the function of leg. We wanted Tarrell to be able to walk with a prosthetic.
The medical team was successful in amputating Tarrell’s leg below the knee. His medical condition improved, and he immediately began to show signs of recovery. However, Tarrell was in a coma for more than a month. When he finally started to regain consciousness, he was extremely confused.
Deborah: Tarrell was definitely upset at first. At that point, I was most worried about his emotional wellbeing. A lot of his friends and family came to see him, and I made sure they were all ready to see and talk with Tarrell. I explained to everyone: When you go in there, you do not fall apart. If I felt like someone was going to go in there and start crying, I wouldn’t let them go in. Because it was so important at that point that Tarrell was surrounded by positivity.
Tarrell made it out of the surgical intensive care unit, but he still had a long way to go in rehab.
Theodora (Theo) Gianoumis, a physical therapist in NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell’s Acute Inpatient Rehabilitation program, worked with Tarrell and set ambitious goals for his recovery.
Theo: Tarrell entered rehab motivated, but he was also scared. We had set a goal of having him walk out of the unit with the aid of walker by the time he left. Sometimes it can be hard for patients to understand that it is a long process and there are many steps in between the injury and recovery, but it’s our job to show them that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
Tarrell: It really took a while for me. I was angry, frustrated, feeling sorry for myself…
Deborah: There were some outbursts, some things thrown across the room out of the frustration. He was upset that he needed help with the things he used to be able to do.
Theo: After a little while though, you could start to see a change. The more he was able to achieve in the therapy session, the more motivated he became. Then one day I said, “Tarrell, today you’re going to stand.” I don’t think he believed me at first, but he was able to do it. He started to cry, and I knew then that that was the turning point.
Tarrell: I had so much support from my friends, family, the NYPD, and my care team at NewYork-Presbyterian, eventually I realized that there are people that have it worse than me. I realized my injury doesn’t define me. There are people out there who lost more than I have and are still doing big things.
Theo: That’s the most rewarding thing for me as therapist — getting someone from that point where they don’t see a way forward, to seeing them able to move around.
Dr. Lorich: Guys like Tarrell with these devastating injuries who are able to bounce back are examples for other patients. I had Tarrell in mind when I was treating Matt Long, another patient who came into the hospital a couple of months following Tarrell. Watching Tarrell’s recovery impacted how I treated Matt.
Matt Long, who has been featured in NewYork-Presbyterian’s “Amazing Things Are Happening Here” ad campaign, is a NYC firefighter who had been hit by a bus while biking to work several months after Tarrell’s accident. Matt was brought to NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell with a crushed pelvis, torso and broken legs. Tarrell encountered Matt while in rehab, where they kept each other motivated and became a source of inspiration not only for themselves, but others.
Dr. Lorich: I would talk to Matt with Tarrell’s case in mind. I’d tell him, “there are people who went through the same thing you did or even worse, but they are doing okay now.” I wanted to give him a little kick in the butt.
Tarrell: We were in some of the same therapy sessions, so I would see Matt in rehab sometimes and give him the thumbs up while we were working out, or vice versa. We encouraged each other. Not only that, the hospital offered a support group, so we always had an outlet to share our frustrations and progress.
Matt and Tarrell would remain on similar paths after leaving rehab. Independently, they have served as motivational speakers, telling their respective stories to others about working through their own obstacles in life, no matter what they may be.
“When something bad happens to you in life, you can sit around wondering “why did this happen to me?” But I realized that the doctors at NewYork-Presbyterian really gave me an opportunity. I got help from them, so I want to help others. I’ve talked to students about my accident and overcoming obstacles in life.” — Tarrell
Deborah: His recovery has been amazing. I’m so proud of him. He motivates me now, which is a little bit of a role reversal for a parent and child. Every day I get to spend with him is a blessing.
“After the accident, the things that used to stress me out just don’t bother me anymore. You have to live the life you want to live. I’m still with the NYPD, who have been so supportive, working in an office job. I have a girlfriend, and we travel a lot more now. I’m living my life again.” -Tarrell
On September 21, 2015, Tarrell was reunited with his medical team and retired FDNY Matt Long. While they’ve all made a big impact on each other’s lives, in some cases it has been many years since they had seen one another. Still, Tarrell remains an inspiration for not only other patients, but his doctors as well.