To reach up and scratch your nose is a mundane gesture that, for most people, hardly warrants a conscious thought.
For Coeur d’Alene Police Officer Michael Kralicek, it’s a determined act of self-reliance and the beginning of a measure of freedom for someone who could only wiggle his toes five months ago.
“This is my second life,” Kralicek said last week at his new home in Post Falls. “I can’t return to what I had. I’ve got to start over. It’s like going to sleep and waking up in a different body.”
Kralicek was working the graveyard shift for the Coeur d’Alene Police Department last December when he got a call to assist two sheriff’s deputies in Hayden.
All he remembers from that night is photographing a damaged sign at a subdivision. His next memories are brief interludes from Harborview Medical Center in Seattle after he awoke from a coma that lasted more than two weeks.
Kralicek was shot at a Hayden home during the arrest of the resident, Michael Madonna, on a misdemeanor DUI charge.
“They tell you at the (police) academy that there is no routine traffic stop. The routine is you can get shot,” Kralicek said. “Mine was a routine assistance call.”
Instead of submitting peacefully to his arrest, Madonna had slipped his handcuffs when he was momentarily left alone, ran inside the house and grabbed a gun.
After he shot Kralicek, Madonna was fatally shot by the deputies, who then rushed to Kralicek’s aid.
The bullet hit Kralicek in the cheek, shattered his jaw, severed his carotid artery and then broke into fragments between his second and third vertebrae, damaging his spinal cord.
“He was lucky to have the officers in the county,” said Carrie Kralicek, Michael’s wife. “If they hadn’t had the skills to start resuscitation, he would have been nonexistent. He wouldn’t be here today.”
Kralicek was rushed to Kootenai Medical Center, where Drs. Jeffrey Larsen and Philip Kladar stabilized him for a trip to Harborview where his artery would be repaired.
Larsen said Kralicek was in “terrible shape” when he arrived.
“He had been down an unknown period of time when he had possibly not been breathing,” Larsen said. “It was very critical and, quite honestly, we weren’t sure he would survive this.”
And if he did survive, Larsen added, his condition would be uncertain.
“I died,” Kralicek said last week. “They just don’t want to tell me.”
Carrie Kralicek, a registered nurse, was working the graveyard shift at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane when she learned her husband was shot. For a moment she “flopped around like a fish,” she said. “Then I jumped up and said, ‘OK, now I need to go take care of Mike.’ “
While he was in the coma, Carrie considered the possibility that she might have to let him die.
“If he wasn’t really there (mentally), he wouldn’t want to be on life support,” she said. “If it’s his time, then so be it, it’s his time and you let him go with dignity.”
Still, small things gave her faith he would come through. Once he scrunched up his nose when she kissed him after drinking coffee – he hates coffee. And his eyes would follow her voice around the hospital room. But one Sunday, she noticed a change in his eyes. He was watching her, not just tracking her voice.
She hurried to his bedside and started asking him yes-no questions, the kind that only he could answer, like the names of their cat and dog. She asked him to raise an eyebrow in response, and he passed her test.
By the time he returned to KMC, he could wiggle his toes and talk a little despite his tracheotomy, the tube down his windpipe that delivered air to his lungs. Among his first words were “Carrie,” “love” and “pain.”
From KMC, Carrie and Larsen agreed he should go to Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo., one of the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the country. Carrie and her two daughters lived with Kralicek in his hospital room. Alexis, the younger daughter, had a tutor, and Amanda got a job while they were there.
At Craig Hospital, Kralicek started the long and arduous task of regaining control over his muscles.
“The thing I hate is (that) the first sensitive thing I feel is pain,” he said.
He had his jaw rebuilt, started eating solid foods and began speech therapy. As his condition improved, his family was able to take him out in a wheelchair to the movies, grocery shopping to fill their tiny refrigerator or to a nearby Greek restaurant where the owner treated them like royalty.
A turning point came at the Craig Hospital after a neurological specialist performed short-term and long-term memory tests on him.
“He told me I passed tests he couldn’t pass,” Kralicek said. “Then I knew I was going to be OK.”
While Kralicek appreciated the expertise of the Craig staff, he couldn’t wait to leave the hospital and its stale, institutional air. He would joke with Carrie about escaping, saying, “Come on, they can’t catch us!”
He finally flew home June 22, greeted at the airport by Coeur d’Alene Police Chief Wendy Carpenter, retired Lt. Don Jiran – who with his wife, Lisa, have become close friends – about three dozen law officers from agencies in Idaho and Washington, television cameras and the applause of the traveling public.
A motorcade accompanied him into Coeur d’Alene where he appeared at a press conference. Finally, he was able to go home to a new single-level home in Post Falls that Carrie bought over the Internet.
The new neighbors had planted a large banner in the yard welcoming him home and have been delivering meals to the family, so they don’t have to worry about cooking.
The outpouring of support, including community fund-raisers to help the Kraliceks with expenses not covered by insurance, is a new experience for the couple.
“Mike and I were used to giving, used to being on the other end,” Carrie explained. They were foster parents while living in North Bend, Ore., where Kralicek took his first police job. At one time, they had 11 children in their home, some with special needs.
Now life revolves around Kralicek, and Carrie can’t care for him alone. “If I didn’t have friends and people over to help, it would be very difficult for me,” she said.
Coeur d’Alene Police Officer Dennis Brodin stopped by Wednesday with a delivery and stuck around to visit. The shooting brought the realization home that it can happen to anybody, Brodin said.
“When you go to work you realize something like this could happen, but you try not to think about it, because sometimes it will affect the way you perform,” he said.
He delivered a piece of equipment to help Kralicek lift his right arm. Kralicek was able to lift his left arm earlier than doctors expected, Larsen said. Kralicek said he just really wanted to be able to scratch his own itches.
But he still needs help with eating and dressing and most other basic tasks. While he’s lost 50 pounds, Carrie jokes she’s getting “buff” from lifting her husband.
Every day brings a string of people through the house, including the certified nurse assistant, an RN, physical and occupational therapists and a consultant from the Idaho Industrial Commission. Don and Lisa Jiran have been there nearly every day.
“It’s Grand Central Station here,” commented Lisa Jiran as she ate some Chinese takeout in the dining room while Kralicek was going through some exercises with a speech therapist. He’s working on enunciating clearly so he can use a computer with voice commands until he regains use of his hands.
Earlier last week, his “Easy Stand 5000” arrived, a contraption to help Kralicek stand and bear weight on his legs.
“I was hoping to run in a year,” he said. “I try not to look at what I used to do, but what I can do and what I will do. … I plan on going back to work as soon as I can. I’ll go crazy sitting around here.”
Doctors say Kralicek will continue to steadily improve over the next year or two, but they’re not promising that he’ll be walking, let alone running, by then.
Still, they remain optimistic after seeing the progress their patient has already made.
“Even expecting miracles, he’s somewhat exceeded our expectations,” said Gary Maerz, Kralicek’s doctor at Craig Hospital. “He just has a couple kinds of strengths; one is the strength of attitude, and the strength of endurance and perseverance. He never became depressed and withdrawn. He never gave up.”
With his determination, Kralicek’s chances may not be half bad.
“He could have died in the helicopter ride to Harborview,” Larsen said. “He’s really beat the odds each step of the way,”