Injured officer’s strength, purpose help him endure pain
Michael Smith opened his eyes to find himself in a stark hospital room. A cast restrained his arm. Bandages wrapped his head. An immense, incredible pain overwhelmed him. He peered at the people sitting near his bed; they looked familiar and concerned. When he finally recognized his mom, dad, and brother, he asked, “Where am I?” Houston, his father told him. “Why am I in Houston?” Michael wanted to know. Last time he’d checked, he lived in Port Isabel, near South Padre Island. He couldn’t figure out what was going on.
The Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) trooper had been in a terrible accident that knocked him down both physically and emotionally. Yet he found the strength to get up and put his life back together, despite the pain.
Life Comes to a Screeching Halt
November 8, 1998, was not unlike any other day at the office for Michael, who at only twenty-seven was a rising star trooper. The tall officer had just arrested a drunk driver and transported him to the downtown Houston jail. Near the end of his shift, Michael jumped back in his squad car and was headed home when he came upon a car accident. As always, he stopped to help. Michael stood with his back to the traffic, within arm’s reach of a Houston Police officer.
They both heard the screeching before the Houston officer spotted a truck careening towards them at almost seventy miles per hour. Before the officer could pull the trooper to safety, the truck slammed into Michael, plowing him right off the median. He rolled twice, like a rag doll, before crashing head first into a concrete pillar. The Houston officer rushed over to Michael to grab his walkie-talkie to call for help, but as he got closer, he realized things were grim. Michael wasn’t in there. His eyes were moving back and forth, and his jaw was locked shut. “It’s all right, man, we’re going to take care of you,” he said. An ambulance arrived within minutes and hustled Michael, struggling for his life, to Ben Taub General, a Level 1 trauma hospital in Houston, where he would remain in a coma for three days.
Waking Up to Reality
“My first memory is about five days after I woke up out of the coma,” Michael says. He didn’t remember the accident or being transferred to Houston a month before the accident. Friends from Port Isabel came to visit him in the hospital. They told stories about things they used to do together. “They brought me gifts and mementos. That helped,” Michael says. He tried hard to remember those weeks in Houston. “I kind of remember some of it. It came to me in very scattered, broken pieces,” Michael says.
“After I woke up, I thought I stepped in the road and it was my fault. But when they told me what really happened, I got even madder,” Michael recalls. The driver of the truck, Michael later learned, blew a .17 on the Intoxilyzer, a device that determines blood/alcohol content. “The law was .10 at the time,” he points out. As if that weren’t bad enough, add to it prescription drugs and no insurance. “The guy was out of jail before I was even out of surgery. That made my father very angry,” Michael adds.
Road to Recovery
“Giving up has never been part of me,” Michael says. But there were plenty of times when he was tempted to do just that during his three-month rehabilitation.
The DPS took care of Michael with what he felt were the best doctors and rehabilitation available. The DPS also reeducated him on how to conduct a traffic stop, drive a car, and even shoot a gun. He had lost all of this expertise. “At times it was emotionally tiring, but it helped me dramatically,” Michael explains. The DPS and Houston Police Department even threw a barbeque benefit for Michael.
Through each successful step in Michael’s rehabilitation, the unrelenting pain kept its hold. His neurologist broke the news that he’d be dealing with pain for the rest of his life. “That was hard to accept,” he admits. “I took classes for pain management. For the most part, I can deal with it. I don’t remember what it’s like to be free of pain.”
A New Attitude
Amazingly, after four long months, Michael returned to full duties as a trooper. In 2004 he promoted to sergeant, eventually leading him to the Academy in Austin, where he met and married Maria, “the best thing that has come into my life—by far,” Michael says with a smile. Now, he’s the sergeant over Texas Highway Patrol in Georgetown.
Michael describes himself as quite different from the way he was prior to the accident. His mom tells him it’s like night and day. “I got frustrated about how organized things ought to be. It was my way or the highway,” Michael admits. Nowadays, when Hazel, his two-year-old granddaughter, visits, “I come home to naked Barbies and toys everywhere. It doesn’t bother me one bit. It makes me feel good to know my house is lived in.”
Since the accident, he has focused on serving his family and friends. “Maria thinks I spend so much time taking care of the yard because I want it to be pretty and green, but I want it to be pretty and green for her. It also keeps me busy so I don’t think about the pain,” Michael says. At home, Maria and Hazel get Michael’s undivided attention. “The Bible talks about looking at the world through a child’s eyes. When I see the world through Hazel’s eyes, I become a kid. We go out, play in the mud, and chase bugs. I won’t even remember what time it is,” he says.
“The purpose of the accident is slowly manifesting itself to me,” Michael explains. “I know there are bigger things going on than I see. My eyes are opened wider every day.” He participates in the DPS peer support team, telling his story to each class of new recruits. It helps them learn what to do in the life-or-death situations that happen all too often in law enforcement.
People that meet Michael might never suspect that he’s in pain. He stands tall in his uniform, keeps a smile on his face, and has a kind word for anyone he meets. “One thing I’ve learned,” he says, “is that you don’t get to choose the deck of cards handed to you. You get to play those cards, but you don’t get to choose the deck.”
Story & Photos by Carol Hutchison