The words “I can’t” are words Cowan police officer Jerod Bradford does not tolerate.
A can-do drive has pushed Jerod to become the first ever, upper-limb amputee to graduate from a police academy in the country, according to research done by instructors at Cleveland State Law Enforcement Academy and Bradford’s prosthetist, Tim Leppert, of Hanger, Inc. in Nashville.
“I want to show to others, don’t ever give up,” said Jerod, who is minus his left arm below the elbow. “Just because you look different or you have something that shows that you are not like everyone else, that should be an asset.
“I would rather try and fail than never tried and wondered if I could have succeeded. That’s the worst part of life is just wondering.”
Jerod, 41, of Estill Springs, is a former lineman for Duck River Electric who lost his left arm over nine years ago as a result of a grisly on-the-job electrocution.
But the injury and loss of limb didn’t grant Jerod a free ride through any of his classes. All of the trainees at the academy must pass each segment without any special treatment. All the PT, grueling range work, obstacle course and even self-defense and subject apprehension classes Jerod did alongside his classmates.
Jerod said each day of training would begin with an hour of physical training at 4:45 a.m. Classes would go through the day and into the night.
His classes included simulations of gunfights, classroom instruction, emergency driving and martial arts. Basically, the trainees are drilled on everything that an officer must know on the street.
“During hell week, we were allowed very little sleep. We lived on barracks on a military base, and … each cadet shot close to 1,200 rounds. We shot handguns, shotguns and AR-15s, and had to qualify with each of them.”
Near the end of training, the trainees had to execute live-fire day and night-room entry drills.
“We had to meet a certain standard or make a certain grade. It was pretty gruesome, crawling through gravel pits, complete two stress courses.”
Jerod said the highest obtainable score on the live-fire courses were a 240. He made a 230 on the day and night evaluations. Overall his shooting score was 97 percent.
Jerod modestly says that he was an inspiration to many in the class.
“I drove a lot of them to their max, because if a one-armed man can do it they could do it. A lot of them told me that.”
The inspiration showed. Jerod said that for the first time ever every member of his class completed the obstacle course a full 30 seconds faster that the required time.
“We formed a brotherhood, all of us class members. We all pulled for each other.”
Jerod said that the whole class was very challenging starting with 35 and ended with 24 graduates.
To prepare for the rigors of the academy, Jerod, who has worked for the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department as a reserve officer, transportation officer and animal control officer, contacted his prosthetist for a limb that would stand up. For the pushups, he went to his shop to build a custom limb attachment out of epoxy and the rubber end of a crutch that would fit in the articulate jaws of his hook.
“Without [my prosthetist, Tim Leppert,] I don’t think I could have made it through. He made me a new arm that I could do more stressful activities with.
“It had a locking device so that I could do active stuff without having to worry about my arm coming off.”
Another step on the way to the academy was to make sure he would not be wasting the instructors’ time. Jerod started getting in shape three months prior to know that he could do the exercises that would be required. He also began intensive range work.
Jerod also lost his right index finger in the accident eight years ago, so he must use his middle finger to pull the trigger, only leaving him two fingers to grip a handgun.
While working for five years as an animal control officer, members of the Franklin County Sheriffs Department offered advice that aided in his certification to carry as a department officer.
“That was something that I worked on and mastered. I had to qualify each year for Animal Control.”
Not a handicap,
but an asset
Jerod would never say he has a disability. In fact, he views his situation as an asset.
“I’ve done everything successfully. Some parts I’ve done better than people with two hands.
“I don’t look at it at all as a disability. There are things that I can do that people with two hands can’t.”
Jerod said in the hand-to-hand combat training class, he went through three partners because he was hurting them.
One part of Emergency Vehicle Operations Class covers what is called shuffle driving where the students learn to drive with their hands at the bottom of the wheel at the 8 and 4 o’clock positions.
“The instructor told me that if I needed to I could go over with one hand it would be okay. But I told him, ‘No, I would do it like everybody else does it.’ ”
The director confided to Jerod after EVOC and the range work his concerns about Bradford’s ability to perform as well as the others.
“He said, ‘You’ve passed EVOC with flying colors, I don’t think there’s anything you can’t do.’ ”
With all sincerity Jerod says that he never doubted that he could do it, or he would have never applied.
“It never entered my mind that the arm would be a factor.”
Over 20 instructors commended Jerod on how well he did.
“I really didn’t understand [the attention] because that was normal. I’ve always adapted and overcome every situation.”
A long road to finish a dream
The accident that cost Jerod his lower arm occurred at, of all places, a hospital.
He was finishing putting in a new pole in front of Southern Tennessee Medical Center in Winchester.
On May 10, 2004, Jerod climbed into the bucket of his truck for the last time. He was making the last connections on the high-voltage power pole that supplies the hospital with electricity.
At 9 a.m. the unthinkable happened. The safety blanket protecting him from the cable slipped, sending 7,200 volts of electricity, about seven times that of a wall outlet, into his body. The current ripped into Jerod’s left triceps, just above his elbow, and burned its way across his chest and down his arm to tear its way out of his right forearm. Left behind was a path of cooked human flesh.
“I was being whipped around,” Jerod remembers vividly, conscious during the accident. “I could remember feeling like that movie I saw when I was a small child: The Exorcist. I couldn’t let go; it jerked me around like a rag doll.
“Once the fuse finally blew – it’s a 40,000 amp fuse – I knew I had withstood almost three times that of the electric chair, and that’s the last thing I remember until the hospital.”
The current stopped Jerod’s heart. Co-worker Jackie Duckwright pulled a plug of tobacco from Jerod’s lip and began to administer CPR.
After the paramedics arrived, “They defibbed me three times in the ambulance,” Jerod was later told.
Once he was stable, Jerod was airlifted to Chattanooga’s Erlanger Hospital.
At Erlanger, life became intense for Jerod. He had suffered severe burns on his arms and through his chest. Where the current had entered and exited his body it cut bone-deep gashes through his skin. The skin of his face and neck were also covered with burns from the arcing current.
Laying on the hospital gurney Jerod continuously asked the nurses working on him to raise his left arm to his chest.
“I knew from the moment I left SRMC I was going to lose my arm. I could feel it dying.”
Robbie, his wife, signed the release forms allowing the amputation of her husband’s arm. At the time he was in and out of consciousness on morphine.
“I was afraid that Jerod would never forgive me for giving away his arm,” she said.
Jerod was being given near-lethal amounts of the painkiller. He was alive only because a respirator forced air into his lungs. The morphine kept him in a hallucinatory state where sights and sounds entered his half-dreams and became real. He became convinced that his physician – Lesley Wong, one of the area’s leading burn specialists – had kidnapped his wife and had forced her into prostitution. In one of his infrequent moments of lucidity, he asked his dad to get his gun from his truck so that he could rescue Robbie from the doctor.
At other times, the burning pain of his injuries combined with images of the Gulf War playing on TV to create a hallucination that the room was on fire. The dreams were so real that he could feel the flames and choke on the smoke.
Dr. Wong gradually reduced his painkillers, and Bradford woke to face several real dangers. Aside from the risk of infections in his wound-ravaged body, the charge that stopped his heart left it with an erratic beat.
Under constant watch from the nurses, every errant bleep of Jerod’s heart was noticed, yet he felt an even greater weight on his heart: will his kids think Daddy’s a monster? Fearing that Merri Grace, at the time 4 years old, and David, then, 6, would be frightened by the menacing room full of medical equipment, Jerod planned a small medical coup to escape the burn ward and visit his children outside.
Robbie eased Jerod into a filched wheelchair and grabbed the IV pole. Waiting until clear, they scurried quickly to the elevator and out the door to the patio where the kids, who had not yet touched their daddy to be sure he was okay, were waiting.
What Jerod didn’t know was that the heart monitors only have enough range for his floor. Inside the nurse’s station all the monitors began to transmit cardiac arrest.
Outside, in the cool of the afternoon shade, Jerod learned that the love of a child doesn’t care about missing limbs and scared flesh; it only wants to find its match in that of a parent. Never again would Jerod’s heart miss its beat.
He still had many miles to travel on his road to recovery. The first step involved a string of surgeries to close the six-inch gap in his arm. Repeated skin grafts were taken to close the bone-deep cut. Each time the doctors cut and pulled the rip on his whole right arm together, they had to cut Bradford’s Carpel Tendon, and Bradford had to relearn simple motor skills like turning a doorknob.
The old skin began to die and fall away so that new skin could grow.
“In the shower, I would look down and see the bottom of the tub covered with chunks of what was me and think, how can anyone survive losing this much,” Jerod recalls.
Once home, workman’s comp. paid for nurses to change his bandages, but the nurses didn’t follow Dr. Wong’s suggestions. Robbie took over the two-and-a- half-hour job of wrapping Jerod’s burns and earned the nurse’s pay.
Days before the accident, Jerod had finished building his family’s home on the spot where he killed his first deer. Now without a job and a settlement unsettled, the meager money Robbie received was the family’s only source of income. It became a struggle to pay the bills.
In this darkest hour of Jerod’s life it would have been easy to become bitter. Instead, he turned to his faith.
Jerod was further tested when Robbie was diagnosed with an incurable, degenerative eye disease. The doctors told her that on any day her remaining vision could be gone.
Jerod feels that the accident and the dark months that followed were used by God to temper him into someone better. Before the accident he was a burly man, caught up in the normal struggles of work and family, but the accident showed him how fragile his life is and how he must cherish every day he has with his family.
“Looking back I had the perfect opportunity to ask, ‘why God, why me,’ but I never felt that way. I had so much faith; I never doubted,” he remembers.
Every day for the next two years was a brutally small step towards becoming whole again.
Standing as an example for others
Jerod says that the academy was tough, but that he would not trade the experience for anything.
“The entire process was a learning experience. It was difficult…exciting – the adrenalin and stress, but something that I would go back and do again tomorrow if I were given the opportunity.”
He said that he wanted to make it through to show that it could be done.
“If I can influence someone else that that has a handicap, a lost limb or something different. If they can look at me and I can be a positive asset to their life, to get them up and moving again, then I’ve done my job,” he said.
“At least try,” Jerod urges. “They should get out there and try; because if you don’t try, you’ll never know.”
While he is the first upper-limb amputee to complete a police academy, several lower-limb amputees have completed police academy training nationally.
Tuesday, Bradford went before the Cowan Board of Mayor and Aldermen in anticipation of becoming a full-time officer.
It’s just another step in an incredible journey.