December 25, 2005 in Idaho

A Kralicek Christmas

The Spokesman-Review
The Spokesman-Review photo

“We have the same strange sense of humor,” said Carrie Kralicek as she smiles at her husband, Coeur d’Alene police officer Mike Kralicek, while he uses their home computer last week.
(Full-size photo)

A year ago, Mike Kralicek was a jock.

“Mike was in impeccable condition,” his wife, Carrie Kralicek, said. “He ate right, exercised. He prided himself in taking care of himself.”

He went regularly to World Gym to pump iron, but he didn’t use the treadmill or Stairmaster. He got plenty of cardiovascular training from chasing suspects during his night shift with the Coeur d’Alene Police Department.

“It seemed like a couple times a week you had to chase somebody,” Kralicek said recently.

He was chasing a fleeing, handcuffed suspect the night of Dec. 28, 2004, when the man, Michael Madonna, grabbed a gun, turned and shot Kralicek in the face.

The bullet shattered Kralicek’s jaw, severed his carotid artery and broke into fragments in his spine. No one was sure whether he would survive, let alone talk and walk again.

It’s been a long year since then, from coma and paralysis, three hospitals and month after month of painful therapies, to Christmas in a new home where Kralicek is beginning to take the first steps, literally and figuratively, toward a measure of independence.

He arrives by wheelchair to his workouts at Lacrosse Health & Rehabilitation Center, populated with elderly residents suffering from strokes and physical disabilities.

This year will be a quiet Christmas for Mike and Carrie Kralicek – no staying up all night drinking peppermint schnapps and hot chocolate, playing their daughter’s Road Rage Xbox game like they did last year.

Nonetheless, the Kraliceks say they have a lot to celebrate. After all, Mike is alive and, unlike someone diagnosed with a terminal illness, he gets a little better every day.

“I could have ended up being a folded flag or a name inscribed on a wall,” Kralicek said.

The man who shot Kralicek wasn’t so lucky. Madonna was shot and killed in a fusillade of bullets from the deputies Kralicek was backing up that night. They had been trying to arrest Madonna for stealing beer kegs.

“December 28 – we now consider that our anniversary,” Carrie Kralicek said. “It’s an anniversary celebrating his new life. It’s not such a bad thing.”

One step at a time

At Lacrosse, Kralicek concentrates on walking and regaining use of his right arm, which hangs loosely at his side when he stands or lies motionless on his right leg when he sits. “I want my right hand back really bad,” he said quietly, noting that it’s no fun learning to be a lefty when you’re right-handed.

And while the surroundings are different and his body is radically changed, he looks forward to these workouts as much as he did his weightlifting sessions.

Physical therapist Mike Dusbabek was tossing a ball back and forth with an elderly Lacrosse resident when Kralicek rolled in on a recent Monday. Kralicek was wearing white Nike tennis shoes with the kind of laces you don’t need to tie, gray sweatpants and an ever-ready smile that belies the daily struggle to make his muscles obey his commands.

Dusbabek and Melanie Sherman, an occupational therapist, left their other patients and joined Kralicek in a corner of the room to begin his session.

To walk, he must first stand up – which is no easy task when you lack balance, and your muscles have become rigid from inactivity.

It took weeks of gradual work, propping him up on pillows and one by one removing them until he could raise himself from wheelchair level.

Dusbabek kneels on one knee behind Kralicek, where he can support his legs, while Sherman stands in front and takes Kralicek’s hands. He’s finally strong enough to get up on his own, but the exertion shows in his dangling right hand, which shakes violently as he slowly stands.

“Way to go, Cheerio,” said Carrie Kralicek as he reached his full height.

Then, Kralicek took careful step after step as Dusbabek scooted behind him on a rolling stool, giving instructions on realigning his posture and straightening his neck.

“Move your shoulders to the right … look up more.”

Sherman continued to hold Kralicek’s hands as he concentrated on her, watching for cues, while his feet moved freely – not in a shuffle, but in high, straight steps, clear across the room. As they approached the hallway, Sherman let go and Dusbabek backed away, but both held out their hands and arms in protective half-circles, ready to catch Kralicek should he falter or faint.

“He’s come a long ways,” Dusbabek said after Kralicek walked a few yards, and then lowered himself – with some support – in a chair to rest.

“The first day he stood, it took four people,” Dusbabek said. “It was a couple of weeks before he took his first step. We sweated a lot that first month.”

Kralicek started physical therapy at Lacrosse on July 21 and goes four times a week. He goes to aqua therapy a couple times a week, has massage therapy for pain control three times a week and once a week has acupuncture, which is credited for bringing movement back to Kralicek’s right hand. Then there are the odd doctors’ appointments to fit into his schedule here and there.

At first, his steps were a shuffling scissor gate, with one shoulder leading the way.

Now when he crosses his legs, it’s on purpose.

“It was seven months before he even started (walking), then, boom! He made significant progress. He’s improved his strength and balance and everything,” Dusbabek said. “We went from four people to three people, then to two people.”

Carrie Kralicek sometimes works alone with him at home in a room furnished simply with a mat, stretching him out and practicing the exercises he does at Lacrosse. And more and more, he’s applying the therapy to daily living, like getting in and out of the front passenger seat of their SUV.

When asked what is the hardest part of learning to walk, Kralicek said, “It’s confidence. I keep thinking I’m going to fall over.”

Other obstacles

Just as Kralicek has learned that it’s slow and painful work to get his muscles to respond, he and his wife have learned it’s sometimes frustrating work to get other people or institutions to respond to their needs.

Over the Thanksgiving, holiday friends treated the Kraliceks to a weekend at the Coeur d’Alene Resort where they had a room on the sixth floor – with steps. Steps are one of Kralicek’s biggest challenges now, but Carrie Kralicek helped him negotiate them in their room with a view.

Thouogh it was appreciated, the weekend getaway wasn’t all relaxation. Rather, it offered an eye-opening experience for the couple.

As they left their hotel room to catch an elevator down to dinner, they discovered one of the elevators was broken. The other elevator was packed full of people.

Each time it stopped on the sixth floor, the doors would open, the Kraliceks and the elevator’s occupants would look at each other, and the doors would close again.

No one stepped out of the elevator to make room for Kralicek and his wheelchair.

“I couldn’t believe how rude people were,” he recalled.

“They looked at us like, ‘It sucks to be you,’ ” Carrie Kralicek said.

Finally, after about 20 minutes of waiting and watching elevators descend without them, Carrie Kralicek was getting claustrophobic and started to panic.

“I never knew what that felt like before,” she said.

She called hotel security on her cell phone, made a plan to pull her husband down the stairs on bed covers if a fire broke out, and waited for security to arrive and clear an elevator for them.

When they got home, the first snowstorm of the season hit, and the Kraliceks found themselves trapped in their home by the berm left by city snowplows.

“I looked at the berm in front of my house and I almost cried,” Carrie Kralicek said.

She called the city to request that the plows keep her driveway clear. Disabled residents can have a post installed in their yard to indicate to snowplow operators to drop a gate and clear the driveway, but she missed the Nov. 1 deadline to sign up for one, she was told. She was also told everyone in the family had to be disabled to qualify.

“I said to her, ‘I am disabled. I can’t leave him in the house while I go shovel the driveway,’ ” she recalled.

After further pleading, the city employee took her address and her name and said she would see what she could do. The post was there the next day.

“It went from no way to there it is,” Mike Kralicek said, guessing that the Kralicek name might have had something to do with the quick response. When he was shot, the incident received widespread media attention. He received a hero’s welcome when he returned from the Craig Rehabilitation Hospital in Denver last summer and served as the grand marshal in the Coeur d’Alene Fourth of July Parade.

The fact that Kralicek was nearly killed, in the line of duty, however, didn’t help in their battle with the Idaho State Insurance Fund over everything from aspirin prescriptions to getting more in-home help so that Carrie Kralicek caould return to work part time as an emergency room nurse.

“I was nickel-and-dimed over everything,” she said. “It was absolutely horrible. … It’s not like he busted a knee cap. It’s 10 times worse.”

After some press coverage and after the Kraliceks hired a workers’ compensation attorney, she had better results.

Brad Landes, national trustee of the Idaho Chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, credits Carrie Kralicek’s perseverance for getting the insurance fund to respond.

“If Mike didn’t have a wife like that, where would he be today?” he asked.

Could be worse

Despite the hardships, the Kraliceks count their blessings.

Their neighbors in the Ponderosa neighborhood – who had never met the Kraliceks before the shooting – pitch in with the mowing, snow removal and other chores. A church delivered them an entire Thanksgiving dinner – something Carrie Kralicek admits she never could have pulled together.

Fund-raisers have helped cover the expenses of living away from home during hospital stays in Seattle and Colorado. And the Kraliceks’ employers and co-workers helped both financially and personally.

But ultimately it was their sense of humor and tight family that helped them survive the past year.

“Mostly it’s just us,” Mike Kralicek said. “Luckily, I came with a good coach and advocate.”

He finds satisfaction in each new accomplishment, such as shaving – with an electric razor, he points out.

And while he can’t help his 12-year-old daughter with all her school projects, he can help with homework and share fatherly advice on things like what to get her boyfriend for Christmas.

“Tools,” he said authoritatively.

“Dad,” his daughter Alexis protested, “he’s only 12!”

Alexis’ older sister, Amanda, has graduated from high school and moved out to attend North Idaho College.

Kralicek has plans to return to school, too, online. He spends some of his time reading and has a new computer, soon to be equipped with speech recognition software so he can access the Internet and use e-mail without assistance.

Dusbabek and Sherman credit Kralicek’s progress to his willingness to work through the pain. They marvel at his ability to smile and joke about it.

“At first, his legs were so tight it was excruciating,” Dusbabek said. Some days, Dusbabek doesn’t expect Kralicek to show up for therapy because the previous session was certain to make him too sore or tired – but there he is. “The doctor told me I have a high tolerance for pain. I said, “That doesn’t mean I like it,’ ” Kralicek said with a smile.

Dusbabek added, “A lot of people would be so bitter, if nothing else. He says, ‘I don’t want to be dependent my whole life. I want to be as independent as I can.’ ”

Carrie Kralicek has sued Michael Madonna’s estate, because she believes Madonna owes her husband something.

“Whatever he has left, it belongs to Mike,” she said. “I’m not mad at him. It’s hard to be mad at a dead guy.”

Kralicek is determined to regain his independence, for both Carrie’s sake and his. He also wants his job back.

One regular visitor at Kralicek’s therapy sessions is Coeur d’Alene Police Chief Wendy Carpenter. She encourages Kralicek, teases him and treats him like a beloved family member.

When she saw him swing a leg up and rest an ankle casually across one knee for the first time, Carpenter jokingly challenged him to lower it. So he switched legs, to her surprise and delight.

It’s a big improvement for Kralicek, but it’s not nearly enough to get him back on patrol.

For the past year, the city has paid the difference between worker’s comp and his salary. But at the first of the year, he’ll no longer be on the payroll and instead will be classified for insurance purposes as permanently disabled, allowing him to collect federal and state benefits.

Still, Carpenter is determined to get him back on staff as soon as possible.

“He doesn’t want to do a menial job,” she said. “There’s a lot he could do to alleviate some of our administrative work. But he just needs to focus on his rehab.”

It concerns Carrie Kralicek that her husband and other injured law officers have a limited time to rehabilitate before losing their position and benefits through their employer.

If he weren’t considered permanently disabled, Kralicek would not be eligible for the same level of government support but would be unable to collect his salary while rehabilitating.

Her experience with the insurance fund, and the financial vulnerability the family faced in the wake of the shooting, has convinced her that more needs to be done to protect law officers in Idaho.

“Before, it was about a fight for Mike,” she said. “Now it’s grown beyond that.”

She’s working with Landes, of the Fraternal Order of Police, to advocate for legislation to better support injured law officers. Landes found a labor lawyer from Pennsylvania who has offered to help. The attorney was moved to volunteer his services after hearing the Kraliceks’ story, Landes said.

“We know how dangerous the job is. People don’t have to tell us,” Landes said. “We just assume our family will be taken care of. We’re finding out that’s not the case.”

Target practice

Among Kralicek’s therapies is exercising his upper body muscles, as well as fine motor skills, with Sherman, the occupational therapist.

One exercise employs a wooden rifle that’s loaded with big rubber bands. Kralicek loops the rubber band onto the end of the rifle and pulls the band back to hook onto a cogwheel that’s released by the trigger.

With his right arm mostly useless, his left hand has to arm the rifle.

Sherman set up a pyramid of blue plastic water cups on a wooden stool, then sat next to Kralicek, holding his right arm in place, while he squeezed the trigger. This is about as close to target practice as Kralicek gets these days.

The first time the band didn’t release, Kralicek joked, “It’s got a defect. Send it back to Glock.”

The next time, the band released, the cups flew across the room and Sherman yelped.

Sherman used to have to help him move the trigger. She wasn’t prepared for the shot.

“You’re getting so used to firing, I don’t even have to help anymore,” she said, pleased.

Mike Kralicek finds it odd that his right trigger finger was the first body part he moved after he came out of his coma last winter.

“I said, ‘I just remembered what happened,’ ” Kralicek said, half-joking. “I was trying to shoot him.”

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