Editor's note: This is the third installment of PoliceMag's "Returning To Duty" Web-only series about the challenges officers face getting back to police work after sustaining injuries on the job. Read the other installments here.
The impact of the two 9mm rounds that struck Det. Rachel Morgan's abdomen first felt like a bee sting. Morgan then felt flushed and the wound below her ballistic vest was hot.
"You feel like you were just burned," says the 32-year-old Paramus (N.J.) Police Department detective. "You just feel not right. It's a very heavy, sick feeling."
Less than 30 minutes earlier, Morgan had initiated a pursuit of an Acura after its driver, 23-year-old Michael Carmody, swerved in front of her cruiser. A short pursuit led her to the Garden State Parkway, where she saw her target lodged in a snow bank next to an on-ramp. Carmody lost control in a curve and the vehicle had turned 180 degrees to face the officer's cruiser.
Det. Morgan had approached the Acura to extricate Carmody, who opened fire. As Morgan backed away from the shooter, backup officer Ryan Hayo engaged the suspect, who continued firing from inside his stolen silver Acura. A third round struck Morgan's hip as she reached for her sidearm, dropping her into the snow on that chilly Super Bowl Sunday evening.
The gunfire stopped. Carmody had shot himself in the head. While her assailant took the easy way out, Morgan's struggles had just begun.
Her fellow officers began removing her duty gear and ballistic vest. That's when they found one of the bullets—it had deflected off her hip joint, exited out her chest, and struck the inside of the vest. The second round entered her abdomen, punctured her bladder, and exited her back.
The bullets had ripped through her internal organs, lacerating her liver, kidneys, large and small intestines, appendix, and gallbladder. The bullet that struck her right hip joint caused major damage to the obturator nerve.
Because Morgan was hit in a heavy traffic area, the ambulance sent for her was stuck on an off-ramp. Her fellow officers picked her up and carried her 100 yards to the waiting ambulance. She remained conscious the entire trip to the hospital.
"I was telling myself to breathe the whole ambulance trip, every 15 seconds," she remembers. "I literally just focused on that. Once I heard them say 'You're here,' I just turned it over to them."
Once she reached Hackensack University Medical Center, Morgan underwent several surgeries to stop the bleeding and repair vital organs. Stents were inserted into her kidneys. Surgeons repaired her bullet-riddled intestines; sections were sewn back together like a jigsaw puzzle. She lost her duodenum—the first section of the small intestine responsible for iron absorption—and descending colon—the part of the large intestine responsible for water absorption.
"I literally eat Metamucil out of a jar, because I have to regulate my own water forever," Morgan says.
Doctors couldn't save her gallbladder or appendix.
On Feb. 11, doctors brought Morgan out of her four-day medically induced coma and kept her on a respirator. Her department issued a statement letting the community know that she was "fully conscious, alert and able to communicate with us by writing."
Her mind raced to her eight-month-old Cane Corso puppy named Ty.
"I just wrote Ty and a question mark," she says about her first communication. She was assured the dog was just fine.
Doctors asked her if she knew the day, and she said Tuesday. It was Friday.
When Acting Police Chief Christopher Brock visited her in the hospital, she had a more pressing question. In the summer, she had received a layoff notice from the department.
"I wrote, 'Can I come back to work?' My chief had a very wide smile, and he said 'Yeah, of course you're coming back to work.' At that point I gave him a thumbs up."
After she left the hospital, Morgan's right hip became the biggest obstacle during her physical therapy. She can move her leg up and down, but when she crosses her body with her knee, she feels a sharp stinging zap she compares to being hit with a TASER. This month, Morgan will have what she hopes is her final surgery (her seventh), when a neurosurgeon will attempt to repair the nerve.
She also credits her plastic surgeon with minimizing the scar on her chest with two surgeries.
"My stomach is the roadmap of where the Garden State Parkway meets Route 80," she jokes.
Her psychological recovery has been helped by her membership in the "Swiss Cheese Club," a group of officers shot in the line of duty who provided timely support.
Morgan was wearing her ballistic vest at the time of the shooting, and she urges all officers to wear them, even if they aren't comfortable. Morgan returned to light duty in January, 11 months after the shooting. Her return came with a promotion to detective—she works mostly shoplifting and burglary cases—and strict orders to maintain no contact with suspects.
"The way I looked at it is if I am capable to do this job I want to do it," she says. "This is who I am. If for some reason I couldn't get back, then he won. Granted he's dead, but if he takes what I love then he won."