Thankful to be alive
- Mara Stine
- Gresham Outlook - News
Gresham resident and former Portland Police Officer Paul Georgioff is dealing with the aftermath of a horrible motorcycle accident
'My wife is a saint,' says Paul Georgioff. He's sitting with his elbows resting on his knees, gazing forward intently. 'And you can quote me on that. My wife is a saint.'
For most of their nearly 29-year marriage, Kathie has put up with the unpredictable nature of his police work. Knowing that every time Paul walked out the door of their split-level Gresham home for a shift as a Portland police officer, he might not come home.
She endured 10 years of him working the graveyard shift, all while taking care of their three now grown children.
So when Paul, 51, says his wife is a saint, he means it.
But what's left unsaid, hangs heavy in the air.
And now this.
Paul is sitting in a wheelchair. A motorcycle crash in July left him paralyzed from the belly button down, and the injury to his spinal cord forced him to retire from his 27-year career as a police officer.
Between the loss of his job, the use of his legs and the effect it's having on his family, Paul has much to grieve.
He also has loads to be thankful for.
Starting with his wife.
And the fact that he's still alive.
A life changing moment
It was July 17, the third day of what had become an annual summer motorcycle ride for Paul and a group of fellow police officers and motorcycle enthusiasts. Eight guys rode to Idaho, where they checked into a hotel, and four headed up to the top of The Spiral Highway, a scenic ribbon of road north of Lewiston.
From the top of the ridge they took pictures before riding halfway down to the valley, enjoying each twist and turn. Then they stopped again to take more pictures of each other coming out of a curve.
While a long-time friend filmed, Paul got on his bike and turned around to head down the sloped straightaway and into the left-leaning curve. Paul got just a few seconds down the road and was setting up for the turn when his friend, who was filming, sensed something was wrong.
The 1992 Honda ST 1100 sport touring motorcycle began to fishtail. Paul tried to correct it. The bike immediately launched into what's called a tank slapper - the handlebars jerked wildly back and forth, slapping the tank between Paul's legs as he struggled to stay on.
'The bike is actually bucking at that point,' Paul says. The violent fishtail caused the bike to act like a whip, which when cracked, launched Paul into the air.
'This is gonna be bad,' Paul remembers thinking in those split seconds of chaos before his body slammed into a metal guardrail and its wooden post. 'I think I hit the ground and the post of the guardrail simultaneously.'
The friend videotaping began running toward Paul when he saw those first wobbles of the fishtail. As the bike bucked like a bronco, Paul's buddy raced toward it, dropping the camera as he sprinted.
He was the first one at Paul's side after the crash.
'Are you OK?' he asked.
'No. I'm not,' Paul replied.
That's the last thing he remembers before waking up in a Portland hospital five days later.
Back in Gresham, Kathie just arrived home after an exhausting day. Her 44-year-old brother had died of cancer eight months earlier and the family had gathered to celebrate his birthday. Drained, Kathie answered the home phone. It was a friend of Paul's saying her husband had been in a motorcycle accident.
Since the hospital in Lewiston rarely flies patients out to other hospitals, she began planning a trip to Idaho. Then the hospital called. Paul needed to be transported to another hospital. Things didn't look good: In addition to his back being broken in three places, Paul damaged just about every internal organ possible. Add to that a punctured lung and what doctors said was a ruptured aorta, and his odds of survival were quite slim.
In short, doctors in Lewiston couldn't do anything to save him, but he probably wouldn't survive a flight to another hospital, either.
A Life Flight helicopter wasn't available in Lewiston, anyway. Even if one was, the hospital in Spokane was too busy to take him. However, an airplane for medical evacuations was available in Spokane. The plane flew to Lewiston, where doctors had Paul waiting on the tarmac for transport to Oregon Health and Science University.
Then Paul - reeling from pain and medication, drifting in and out of consciousness - experienced a brief moment of lucidity. Doctors put him on the phone with his wife.
'I knew at that point that the chance of him making it through the flight were not good,' Kathie says.
But she didn't let on to Paul that this could very well be their last conversation, their last words to one another.
'I love you, and I'll see you when you get here.'
Kathie left it at that.
Then she braced for his death … and was she shocked he lived through the flight.
'I was prepared for him not to.'
Paul, who listens to his wife's account of what he has no memory of, blinks hard.
'I'm sorry, baby,' he says, his voice raw with emotion. Despite his tough cop exterior, he's a tenderhearted mush, especially when it comes to his wife and kids.
'It's OK,' Kathie says. 'It's OK.'
Badge of honor
For more than a week, the team of doctors in the intensive care unit didn't know whether Paul would pull through.
'He's about as broken as they come,' they said.
Paul's torso took the brunt of the guardrail post's impact, breaking every left rib, front and back, plus a few on the right. Those broken ribs likely caused the punctured lung. Such extensive lung damage alone was enough to do him in.
But, in one bit of good medical news, his aorta wasn't ruptured after all, just severely bruised.
'Bruised and broken, sliced and diced,' Paul chirps.
The highly vulnerable state of his health made everything that could save him that much more risky. And some needs competed with others. For example, his lung injury required that Paul sit up to breathe - but his spinal cord injury required him to lie down.
The solution: Fuse his spine so he could sit upright. Doctors battled over whether he'd survive the surgery, so they split it into two parts.
'So the fact that he's sitting here is pretty extraordinary,' Kathie says.
Despite it all, Paul's sense of humor remained intact, particularly his penchant for puns.
'I'll get back to that later,' he says talking about his back surgeries. Get it? Back to that?
So hilarious were his morphine-induced comments, his family began jotting them down in a spiral notebook.
He relished showing off the road rash on his right side and forearm, particularly to his adult sons Ryan, 22, and Ben, 19.
'When you're a motorcycle rider and a guy, your road rash is a badge of honor,' Kathie says.
'It was gross,' says daughter, Allison, 24.
Meanwhile, friends - many of them officers from Portland and surrounding agencies - packed the hospital waiting room. At one point Paul's daughter counted 40 people.
When friends weren't visiting, they spent their spare time renovating Paul's house, where he's lived the past 20 years. As many as 50 people converged on the house for work parties, forming two teams.
Team Interior expanded the master bedroom, adding space from an adjacent smaller bedroom and carving out a future master bathroom. They also laid wood flooring in the entryway, kitchen, bathroom and master bedroom.
Team Exterior built an expansive deck on the back of the house, complete with a wheelchair ramp - allowing Paul to bypass the home's split-level front entry.
Local businesses and home improvement stores donated materials and helped in other ways. The day after the crash, when Kathie's neighbor called on her behalf to cancel her appointment at Gresham Downtown Dental Group, the office sent over some meals. It even provided food for work party volunteers.
Paul returned home Sept. 21, about two months after the crash.
A week later, he had his first appointment with a spine specialist.
'He marveled that I was still alive,' Paul says. 'My back looks like a hardware store.'
These days, he is learning to live in a wheelchair.
'It's hard to do,' Paul says.
There's physical therapy and occupational therapy. Core strength is key, as is training his brain to react quickly to any loss of balance. In that vein, Paul deliberately drops things on the ground, forcing himself to bend over, stretch and pick them up - all without losing his balance and falling out of the wheelchair.
He's learning how to pop wheelchair wheelies - not just to look cool, but to zigzag down hills so he doesn't gain so much speed that he loses control. The skill also is essential to navigating curbs without curb cuts.
Wheelie practice is encouraged.
'But don't do them alone,' says physical therapist Steve Malone during a recent home visit. 'Unless you want to work on floor recovery.'
'Hey,' says Paul brightly, 'I've still got a motorcycle helmet …'
Paul has a quip for everything.
When the physical therapist remarks that Paul has a tough time getting out of the wheelchair in part because of 'water on the legs' - Paul's water retention is some of the most severe his physical therapist has seen, and it's because of damage to his internal organs - Paul says another factor could be to blame.
'Fat on the belly, too.'
Noting a loss of balance while Paul launches from his wheelchair to the bedside, Paul says, 'It's cuz I was drinking.'
All kidding aside, it's tough work navigating life in a wheelchair.
He celebrates victories such as putting on his shoes or getting to bed with no help from his wife.
'It's a very strange thing, to go from being fully functional to having nothing,' Paul says, waving his hands across his legs outstretched on the bed.
Coming to grips
Apart from the physical aspects of being a new paraplegic, Paul grapples with no longer being a police officer and struggles to comprehend what caused the accident that severed his career.
The Nez Pierce County Sheriff's Office issued a press release stating that Paul's rear wheel locked up, but Paul questions that conclusion.
'I don't know why I crashed,' he says. 'I'm a good rider. I'm not only a good rider; I'm a very good rider. I've ridden for 32 years without a single accident and have taken three advanced rider courses. I find it hard to believe I made a mistake to the degree that would cause me to do that (crash).'
He attributes his survival to the low speed he was traveling, an estimated 25 mph.
'We don't ride fast and crazy,' Paul says of his riding buddies. 'We're not these crazy sports riders, super fast guys. We're in our 50s with families.'
Paul misses his riding buddies, misses his coworkers and misses his identity as a police officer.
'I still like being a police officer,' he says, speaking in the present tense. 'I was still a police officer when the accident happened and still enjoyed it. Sometimes I even loved it.'
If it weren't for the accident and resulting paralysis, he'd be in the thick of Occupy Portland, complete with protests, marches and encampments.
'I wish I was there to help,' he says, commenting on the 72-hour eviction notice Portland Mayor Sam Adams issued to those in the downtown Portland encampments. 'About 95 to 99 percent of police officers go into the business because they want to help people.'
It's why Paul became a police officer.
'Plus, I don't like injustice,' he adds. 'That's the other part of police work - you try to stop injustice.
'It really was a privilege to be a police officer all those years,' he says. 'And I wasn't ready to be done. I still think like a police officer.'
His police buddies, many of whom have side gigs, tell him that as soon as he's ready, they'll find a job for him. Paul has spent a few hours online looking at what he calls wheelchair jobs, 'but nothing really reached out and grabbed me,' he says.
Until he's ready to work again and until the right job comes along, Paul and his wife are making the mental and physical shifts necessary to cope with Paul's new life in a wheelchair.
They are realistic.
'Nope, it's not gonna be the same,' Kathie says. 'But the world is still way open.'
And again, a sense of humor comes in handy. When after the accident Paul said he wanted to fulfill a lifelong dream of skydiving, Kathie's response was an enthusiastic, 'Sure. If you land wrong, no harm, no foul.'
'Well, that's true,' Paul says thoughtfully, before pointing out that the only real logistical issue is figuring out how to actually jump out of the plane. It would have to be a tandem jump, they conclude.
'Part of my response is to emphasize all that he can still do,' Kathie says, lest people think she's cruel or find her honesty brutal. Paul might even be able to enjoy pursuits he'd given up before the accident.
'Maybe you can ski now,' Kathie says, adding that his bad knees are no longer a barrier. 'Hey, they have contraptions now.'
They'd like to travel, maybe on a wheelchair-accessible cruise ship. Paul also plans to get behind the wheel of a car by summer.
'And I fully intend to ride a motorcycle again,' Paul says, a goal he initially expressed while still in the ICU. 'I'm not religious, but I believe in God. My priorities are God, my wife, my kids, my neighbors, my community and motorcycles.'
But for Paul, it's just part of him living his life as he's always lived it.
'I'm still here, just like I always was,' he says, explaining that some people seem surprised that he's not bitter, lost or resigned to living out the rest of his life as an invalid. 'It's because I am who I am.'
'If someone asks me how I'm doing … I'm OK. Not that I don't have my dark moments. There is a lot of loss and a lot of grieving. For all of us. But I'm doing OK. … I am eternally amazed and grateful for the life that I have. Including right now in this wheelchair.
'Every day is a good day,' he says. Because he's still here to live it.
Kathie couldn't agree more.
'Life throws you stuff that you have to adjust to,' she says. 'This is a big one, but we're adjusting. … Day to day, it can be rough sometimes. Then I take a step back and do the math and count the days from the accident and say, 'Wow, he's doing great.'
'We're going through a whole lot of work, but I get to have a long future with my husband. When you keep that perspective, it doesn't look so bad.
'In fact, it looks pretty wonderful.'
Party, fundraiser set for Georgioff
A second retirement party/fundraiser for a longtime police officer paralyzed this summer in a motorcycle accident is set for 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4.
The party is at Buffalo Wild Wings, 22849 N.E. Glisan St., and includes a silent action to benefit Paul Georgioff of Gresham.
Georgioff, 51, was on his annual summer motorcycle ride with fellow police officers in July when he crashed in Idaho. The crash left Georgioff, a 20-year Gresham resident, paralyzed from the waist down. It also forced him to retire from a 27-year career with the Portland Police Bureau, most recently in the TriMet Division.
The auction/fundraiser is an encore of sorts. Another was held on Nov. 13, but many officers were unable to attend because they were busy clearing out Occupy Portland encampments.
In addition to celebrating Georgioff's retirement, they complained about missing out on a chance to bid on trips to Mexico and Hawaii, among other items, Gerogioff said.
Donations also can be made to the Paul Georgioff Fund at any Wells Fargo Bank branch.