For many times over the past 10 years, Tarrell Lee thought about giving up. “Why me?” he used to ask himself.
At around 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 12, 2005, when a Mazda tried to jump the traffic line at 60th street and York Ave, it slammed hard onto a Chevy SUV, which then skidded and plowed into Lee, who was then on duty directing traffics.
“I thought I’d die,” said Lee. “I thought that was it.”
Lee was taken to the nearby New York-Presbyterian Hospital, just blocks away. There the NYPD traffic officer underwent 10 hours of surgery and was in a medically induced coma for 35 days. After as long as nearly seven months’ hospitalization, he went home—and began to once again learn how to walk.
On Monday, a decade after the accident that almost killed him, Lee set foot again in the same hospital. This time, however, he came in suit and tie, looking happy and cheerful--to reunite with the medical team that saved his life.
“Thank you all for what you’ve done to me,” Lee said after struggling to stand up from his seat. An artificial limb from knee down supported his right leg; he sweated a lot, and wiped his face constantly with a dark blue towel that he carries around with him. “I am here today because of you.”
For the doctors of New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Lee was not an everyday patient. “The X-rays were really bad, but nothing that I hadn’t seen before”, Dr. Dean Lorich, the orthopaedic trauma surgeon for Lee, recalled when he first took over the case. The real problem came days later. “After we fixed him he just kept getting worse,” said Lorich. The muscles on Lee’s leg started to develop dangerous infections and become necrotic, and further “infected his whole system and make him sicker and sicker”.
Lorich and his team had to make a decision: amputating his right leg to keep him alive. They also managed to keep his knee. “The damage was trying to force our hand to do an above-the-knee amputation,” said Lorich. “I really didn’t want to do that. Look how difficult it is for him to walk now; above the knee, he may never walk again.”
Nine years later at the reunion party, when Lorich saw Lee, now a “big happy guy”, he was grateful for the decision he made back then. “He was in coma, so I had to talk to his mom,” said Lorich. “Being a part of the decision was hard for me too ... It’s something that I could never learn from medical school.”
At the reunion, Lee was joined by his “brother in trauma,” Matt Long. The pair crossed paths as patients in the hospital. Long, a retired NYC firefighter, was hit by a bus while riding his bike to work in 2005.
Fate brought them together. They encouraged and inspired each other. Long said that he was motivated “through motivating” Lee.
When the tragedy happened to Lee, he was only 27 years old. Now approaching 40, Lee is grateful and content about where he is in life. He has an “amazing girlfriend”; he has returned to NYPD as a desk officer; moreover,he has forgiven the Mazda driver--after a long lunch together seven years ago; the driver, a doctor from Buffalo, sends him postcards every Christmas.
Lee wanted to deliver a message to those who are in adversity. “Don’t give up, keep going. If others can make it, you can make it too,” he said.