" NOTHING EVER HAPPENS IN BLAIRSTOWN"
by Christopher Hirko
I am 31 years old and facing being disabled for the remainder of my life. I began my law enforcement career by becoming a corrections officer in the county jail in 1992. After a year and a half I was transferred into the Sheriffs department who sent me through the police academy. In December of 1994 I was hired by a small municipality in north-western New Jersey. The attitude of the residents was "We really don't need a police department, nothing ever happens in Blairstown." The department is small, 6 officers, but we cover an area of 31 square miles with a population of 6,000, and I often worked alone. February 22, 1995, just three months after being hired, I attempted to stop a suspected drunk driver. The driver, a one time heavy weight collegiate wrestler, stopped and exited his vehicle, running toward my patrol car and started to punch and kick my patrol car. The driver then returned to his vehicle and tried to get away. After a short pursuit the suspect stopped his truck in his driveway as I pulled my vehicle to the bottom of the drive. At that point the suspect put his GMC pick up in reverse and rammed my patrol unit, pushing it back about 100 feet. All I saw from that point on was the suspect once again punching at the windows of my patrol car, I then lost consciousness. The suspect pulled his truck form the hood of my car and escaped to his house where he got a loaded shot gun and a 30-06 rifle stating to his mother, "the cops are after me and they won't take me alive."
The next thing I can remember is being pulled form my patrol unit by an off duty officer from my department that was responding as back up. I insisted to remain on the scene until the suspect was in custody even though I had severe neck pain and vomited several times. The suspect was captured approximately 4 hours later and committed to the Trenton Psychatriactic Prison on a slew of charges.
I was taken to the hospital and released the same day with "whiplash" injuries, seat belt bruises on my chest and bruised palms from gripping the steering wheel during impact. I remained out of work for 8 weeks.
Upon my return to work I was offered no counseling, or "stress debriefing" by my department. It was business as usual, with one exception. The pain in my neck and numbness in my hands did not diminish.
It took me three months to make my first motor vehicle stop when I returned. From that point on I pushed the issue of having 2 man patrols to no avail. For three and 1/2 years I suffered intense pain and numbness in my neck and left arm, and had nightmares and psychological wounds that would not heal. I endured testimony in the court case where the subject was found "NOT GUILTY BY REASON OF INSANITY." Was this a cruel joke? This person is not guilty, free to walk about the town (by the way he lives one block from our police headquarters) and I'm the one who cant sleep at night and am having nightmares.
By August 1998 I had gone through several M.R.I.'s and seen orthopedic and neurological specialists, but no psychological counseling. In that month I underwent a cervical diskectomy (neck fusion) with a titanium plate being installed in my neck because the ligaments connecting my vertebrate were torn. Again, I was out of work, this time for 5 months until my return to active duty in January of 1999 and still no psychological counseling. The majority of my physical pain was diminished. The numbness and permeate nerve damage persisted. My psychological scars worsened. The second day back on the job I checked my departmental mail box and found a card. The card was form the same man that tried to kill me 4 years earlier. Every time I passed the area of the "accident" I would break out in a sweat and my heart would start pounding. He would pass me in the same blue GMC pick up, honk his horn and wave. Many times I thought I would be better off dead. My wife was so worried about me she spoke to our family doctor who then spoke to me. To say the least, I was suprised that he would be concerned with my psychological well being. I denied having any difficulties, even though I knew different.
It wasn't until my wife, children and I were vacationing in Niagara Falls did I realize I was in trouble. We went into a busy McDonalds and I had my first panic attack.. Upon returning home I made an appointment with my family doctor who diagnosed me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and anxiety. My condition worsened to the point I was put on two anti-anxiety medications. Even with the medications I had trouble coping with work and seeing the person on a daily basis. In September I was referred to a Psychologist who expanded my diagnosis to also include Agoraphobic tendencies and major chronic depression.
I had to make the hardest decision in my life. I decided to end my career as a police officer rather than totally ruin my life and that of my family. I am currently on paid sick leave and am applying for a disability pension and social security.
To all the police officers out there that work in a small town where "nothing ever happens", take it form me, no matter where you work the stress is the same. If you start to sweat, shake, have heart palpitations and the job just isn't "fun" any more when you put on your uniform seek help from your family, friends, and physicians. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not a death sentence, it's a treatable illness.© 1999 Patrolman Christopher J. Hirko #14
Blairstown Township Police Department
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