Michael McDaniel: Back on the Job After Amputation

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By Sherry Metzger

Amputation won't prevent one of Cobb County's finest from returning to active duty.

Sherry Metzger
Sherry Metzger

Wrapping up a long evening on patrol, Officer Michael McDaniel of Atlanta, Georgia, approached the back of an ambulance to ask a few last questions and complete his paperwork on a routine traffic accident. Anxious to return home to his wife and two young sons, McDaniel's mind was filled with thoughts of shooting hoops or wrestling on the carpet before bedtime. As McDaniel looked over his left shoulder, he caught a glimpse of a 1996 Buick Regal and its 87-year-old driver barreling toward him at over 50 miles per hour.

Before his mind could register what had occurred, McDaniel, 34, found himself pinned between the car and the ambulance. The force of the impact was so great that emergency medical technician (EMT) Amy Garrett was ejected from the ambulance. Firemen and police officers who were on the scene from the original accident were in their vehicles preparing to leave when they witnessed the shocking collision. Because these first-responders were still at the scene, McDaniel received immediate, life-saving care.

As one firefighter backed up the Buick to release McDaniel, two officers held him up, laid him on the ground, and did everything they could to keep him from bleeding to death. They spoke to McDaniel constantly, calming him. Meanwhile, McDaniel felt his right leg snapping back into place when it was released, and as he gazed down, he saw his left leg lying on the ground.

He asked the officers to call his wife.

"It happened in a matter of seconds," McDaniel recalls. "I was stepping into the ambulance for some last questions and signatures. Suddenly I felt like something was twisted in both my legs. I wouldn't have been behind that ambulance if I wasn't trying to get some extra information."

Though his right leg and left knee were spared, McDaniel's lower left leg was completely shattered.

"My calf exploded like a grape," he says. "They found pieces of bone 20 feet from the ambulance. The bone was crushed; it wasn't salvageable, and they believed at that point there would be no way to reconstruct the leg."

As McDaniel faced amputation, he believed it would end his career as a police officer.

McDaniel and his wife at his police academy graduation.
McDaniel and his wife at his police academy graduation.

"I enjoy helping people. I knew from the time I was a little kid that I was going to be a police officer," he says. "Occasionally you have to correct people. Some people just don't know right from wrong, and they need someone to point them in the right direction."

Before McDaniel pursued this dream, he served ten years as an Air Force staff sergeant, working as a first-line supervisor for troops and a fuel technician deployed to Korea, Japan, and twice to Kuwait. Upon his return, McDaniel immediately joined Georgia's Cobb County police force.

Since his amputation, McDaniel has faced a number of obstacles to return to the job he loves.

"When I saw the car hit me, I thought it was over right then," he says. "The first turning point for me was when they told me I could keep my job. I would have to pass a physical test, but I would be allowed to return to the force on active duty and even get back into my patrol car. They told me it was possible to return to everything I was doing before, and I knew then that there's no giving up for me. I was glad to be alive."

McDaniel's prosthetist Jim Barnes, CO, Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics, Atlanta, Georgia, says he saw the transformation in McDaniel's attitude firsthand. "I spent a lot of time with him at the first meeting for an evaluation and consultation shortly after his accident," says Barnes. "Counseling is part of the process. He didn't know what to expect, and he was down about that. I let him know that there is a future for him, and we talked about what his life would be like."

Barnes listened to McDaniel's goals and explained to him the wide range of prosthetic devices available from basic to athletic. Knowing how important it was for his patient to return to active police duty, Barnes selected prosthetic components that would be lightweight, durable, and shock absorbent. "We went with a Ceterus® foot [Ossur, Aliso Viejo, California], and a carbon-fiber laminated socket," Barnes says. "He still has a cast on his so-called 'good side' that has complicated his treatment; it's the only thing slowing him down. But he's walking independently and making great progress."

Because McDaniel was in extraordinary physical condition before the accident, he healed much quicker than expected. With support and encouragement from family, friends, fellow officers, Barnes, and his community, McDaniel pushed through excruciating pain to adjust to his new prosthetic limb. Walking on a treadmill at home for hours at a time, using a bike and cross-country stepper, and going to physical therapy twice a week has built up his strength.

"I had the support of my whole department," McDaniel says. "It kept me going to know they were cheering for me, praying for me. They helped my wife around the house and yard. And my wife has been phenomenal. I couldn't ask for anything better."

Communication between Barnes and McDaniel was an essential part of his care. "Where he was once withdrawn and quiet about his treatment, he has come out of his shell and is more vocal about his care," says Barnes. "I encourage feedback from my patients. I ask, 'How is the socket feeling?' They've never done this, so they don't necessarily know that it shouldn't hurt. I tell them to talk to me. Everything is fixable."

Putting faith in the prosthesis was the first step for McDaniel. "Taking those first steps with my prosthetic leg was what I imagine my first baby steps were like," he explains. "You've got to trust this thing under you to support you. I have a prosthesis that's for active people. I can do anything athletic and my job. If I can't do it with this leg, it's not something I want to do!"

Four months after his accident, McDaniel went to work on the desk at Cobb County headquarters. In November, he returned to Precinct 3 and was greeted by friends and coworkers. "They say I'm an inspiration and that they're proud to have me back," he says. "It's an accomplishment to be back at my precinct doing light dutyreports over the phone, walk-ins, and accident reports. I'm looking forward to passing the required physical tests so I can be on full duty and get back on the road, patrolling the streets."

McDaniel will be one of a handful of police officers who have had amputations and returned to active police duty.

Though his friends sometimes tease him for all the attention and media publicity he's now receiving, McDaniel has comfortably adapted to being an inspiration. "I advise others who might find themselves in a similar situation to not give up on themselves," he says. "I know that nothing is impossible; I've just got to figure out how to do it, what I need, and just do it. I will do it."

Sherry Metzger, MS, is a freelance writer with degrees in anatomy and neurobiology. She is based in Westminster, Colorado, and can be reached at  sherry@opedge.com