"Bring it On" - Officer First Class Paul R. Hoke #4031

An amazing story of resiliency from the darker side of policing. Many have faced the same struggles with far different outcomes. Please share in hopes that some will avoid the same painful path.

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Do Good || Be Strong || Fear Nothing

Transcript:

“My name is Paul Hoke, and I'm a 24 year veteran with the Baltimore County Police Department in Baltimore County, Maryland.  I am currently assigned to the Towson Precinct as a patrol officer. I will briefly tell you about myself, as the reason for my emailing you has more to do with the message I wish to send to you and your listeners, and less about my career in law enforcement.  


I began my career in December of 1995 when I was hired as a 19-year old Police Cadet.  A police cadet in the Baltimore County Police Department is essentially a non-sworn pre-academy employee.  I was assigned to the desk at the Cockeysville Precinct, in the northern part of the county, on what can only be described as a very veteran shift.  Most of the men and women I was working with had at least 15 years on, and some, like my first shift Lieutenant, had been with the agency since before I was even born.  My main reason for joining the police department was far and away, my father. My father was, and is, my hero and he was a police officer my entire life up to that point.  In fact, he was in the police academy when I was born. He almost didn't make it to the hospital to witness my birth thanks to the academy staff. The other reasons for choosing law enforcement as a career are the standard ones, such as helping people, wanting to be a cop since I was a kid, etc.  But following in my father's footsteps was by far the top. Even if he didn't want me to.


Anyway, my responsibilities at the precinct were that of a regular desk officer.  I took reports, answered the phones, sent teletypes, processed prisoners, assisted the road officers with administrative duties, and even once in a while, was cut loose on slow days to go write parking tickets around the various parts of the precinct.  I could drive a police car (not in emergency status of course), and was paid quite well for a 19 year old in 1995 with nothing more then a high school diploma and enjoyed health insurance benefits as well.  


After a year and a half, in June of 1997 following my 21st birthday, I entered the Baltimore County Police Academy.  My time at the academy was, well, equal parts good and bad. It was still somewhat the old school of doing things and we were constantly hammered and drilled for even the smallest of infractions.  In some ways, I think the academy needs to return to some of these roots in order to weed out some of those who shouldn't be hired in the first place. But that's just my opinion. After all, lazy academies produce lazy cops.  


After I graduated in December of 1997, I was assigned to Shift 3 patrol at the Towson Precinct, the county seat and location for the county government, two courthouses, and both male and female detention centers.  Towson is also home to three major hospitals including the Sheppard Pratt Hospital, which is world renowned in the field of mental health. The area itself is quite diverse, with urban settings on one side, a large central business district which includes the largest shopping mall in the county, and a quiet suburban area on the west side.  Bordering Baltimore City also brings with it, its fair share of challenges. It's geographically the smallest of Baltimore County's 10 police precincts, but by far one of the most densely populated.  


The early part of my career as a patrol officer was simply spent learning and growing with the job.  As you well know, the law enforcement career is always evolving, and I was around to see the "old way" morph into 21st century policing.  The "old way of doing things" was on it's last legs in the early stages of my career, and in some ways, that was a very positive step.  


After about 7 or 8 years in patrol, I decided to try my hand at narcotics work.  I was assigned to the Community Drug and Violence Interdiction Team (CDVIT). CDVIT is essentially a unit of Narcotics, which works within the precincts.  Having spent about 7 years in Towson up to that point, it seemed like a natural fit seeing as how I new the area very well and worked well with everyone. My time in CDVIT was enjoyable, but the burnout was evident.  As a young husband and father (my son and daughter were both under 6 years old at the time) the hours needed to work in the unit took its toll on me and my family. I returned to my original shift, and with the exception of a few years spent in the Business Patrol Unit within the precinct, I have been on that shift ever since. 


Now, as you know very well, the job of a patrol officer can cause a whole lot of wear and tear on a person, both mentally and physically. All too often we choose to numb the aches and pains of both with choices that aren’t always the best for us.  I'm of course referring to alcohol. Around 2011-2012, as I was approaching my 20 years on the job, I noticed my knees were starting to get...cranky. I did seek help from my doctors, but I got little, if any help, eventually being diagnosed with, say it with me, “Chronic Knee Pain Syndrome.” I swear to God, that’s what the doctor said.  I was given treatment options and strengthening exercises to do, but none of them helped. The pain was starting to get to the point where it was impacting my everyday life, my job, and my time with my kids. It got to the point where I sought out second and third opinions, and culminated in my having MRI's done on both knees. To my shock, and somewhat dismay, no structural damage was found, and there seemed to be no answer given to me by medical professionals as to why my knees were constantly hurting.  


Somewhat logically, however, they turned their attention to my ever-growing weight.  I had fallen into the same trap a lot of our fraternal brothers and sisters fall into and my diet was suffering from both shift work and poor nutrition choices.  Additionally, I began drinking more. So it was a normal assumption that my weight gain had a lot to do with my knee pain.  


At the same time, my relationship with my wife had begun to deteriorate, for several reasons, and I found myself drinking more both at home and after I got off of work.  Other things began to pile on and I was finding myself spending more time away from home in an attempt to avoid the confrontations that came with being there. It would soon become the norm for me to stop by the bar on the way home from work, and to visit there on days off.  The amount of money I was spending on booze and KENO was beginning to take it's toll financially on my family, and relationships therein continued to deteriorate. My wife, feeling the pinch financially, took a second job which basically took her out of the house from 0700 - 2300 hrs. for six of the week's seven days.  This temporarily fixed the money issue, but created different issues between us and caused a further rift in the family. With all that, my drinking continued to increase, and I found myself buying a 30 pack of beer every 5-7 days.  


This behavior was starting to impact my job performance as I was now beginning to show up for day work either hung over or exhausted, and my weight continued to climb.  In addition to the physical toll this lifestyle was taking on my body, I began to care less and less about the things that we need to deal with during everyday life. Hygiene, appearance, and quality of life began to matter less and less to me as all I would be focused on was where my next drink was coming from and how I could numb the pain.  


During that time, family and friends tried to intervene, but I was in such a state of denial and depression, that it just ended up pushing me further and further into the isolation I was now creating for myself.  


By this time, I had also pretty much given up on correcting my knee issues and my limp had both gotten worse and become just normal everyday life for me.  I saw no future beyond my next escape into the bar or glass of beer and ultimately it impacted my relationship with my kids. I had coached my son's baseball team since he was 5 and now, as we reached 2015-2016, I became less and less involved in this.  My son is an exceptional baseball player and has drawn the attention of scouts for several years. And as much of a source of pride as that had been for me, and as close as baseball had brought me and my son, I found that I didn't even care about that anymore.  


I knew what I was doing.  I knew it was wrong. I just had no idea how to stop.  I didn't consider myself an alcoholic. I felt justified in everything I was doing because I was starting to blame everyone else for the problems I was facing.  Especially at work.  My supervisors started getting on my case about the sick days I started using, the condition I would show up for work in, and the lack of quality in my actual work.  


By this point, I had migrated to the desk which, because of my deteriorating knees and my absolute disdain for the profession altogether, became necessary.  In hindsight, going on the desk may have been the worst thing I could have done. While the desk can be extremely busy, especially during an evening shift, there is also enough downtime that one begins to wallow. Because the only positive thing I saw in life was getting to my next drink or KENO card at the bar, the time spent idling at the desk only fueled my depression and sense of isolation.  Everyone was becoming my enemy. I was beginning to become paranoid. Everyone, friends, family, supervisors, were out to get me. I knew, deep down, this wasn't true. In those rare moments where I experienced actual mental clarity, I knew I needed help. I knew I needed to stop. But I couldn't. I felt powerless, and it was all starting to overwhelm me to the point where I had finally given up.  My wife, sensing this, left me in March of 2017. She told me she would not return until I straightened my life out. I needed to find my way back to who I was, but she wasn't going to be around for it anymore.


Around April of 2017, I really started to notice something was very wrong.  I picked my son up after baseball practice one day, he was now 17 and a junior in high school.  As he climbed into the van, telling me about practice, he looked me dead in the eye and I'll never forget what he said..."Dad, why are your eyes yellow?"  I think I made up some BS reason about being tired or whatever, but I wish those words had the same impact on me that the memory of it has on me now. Although, it did make me start to think.  


I began to notice other things.  I was starting to see a green tint to street lights, car headlights, and other overhead lights.  One morning, while sitting on desk, a co-worker of mine came in and said bluntly, "Paul, why are you green?"  She said it in a manner that I'm sure she intended to try to scare me into action. My fellow officers and supervisors had been dropping hints for a while at that point, but they all fell on deaf ears.  I ignored the problem. But I was keenly aware that something just wasn't right.  


As fat as I had become, I was noticing a certain distention in my stomach, which was accompanied by constant pain.  My pants and belt no longer fit the way it used to, and I was unable to fully bend over and tie my shoes or put my socks on.  Part of that was because the pain in my knees had become unbearable, to the point where I needed my son to help me put on my socks and shoes and tie them.  I had reached a low I never thought possible, and still, I did nothing.


Things all came to a head the third week of June 2017.  I was at Phase One of our range qualification when I ran into a friend and co-worker I had not seen in many years.  He held back nothing. Before class started and I went to shake his hand, he blurted out in a quiet room, "Dude, what the fuck? Why are you so yellow."  As embarrassed as I was, I again made up some bull shit excuse and carried on as though nothing was wrong.  


After the range that day, my first stop was at my bar.  I was at the ATM machine when a close friend of mine looked at me and asked why my eyes were so yellow.  I shrugged and said nothing. That day, a few of my closest friends and co-workers met me at the bar for what was essentially my "Come to Jesus" meeting.  They informed me that our supervisors’ concern in my condition was now extreme, and they asked my friends to take one more stab at waking me up. Otherwise, they were stepping in.   I knew what I had to do. I knew the time had come to get help. But I did nothing. I sat at that bar, made false promises over shots of Fireball, but I had no intention of changing anything.  I couldn't. I was officially beyond help. In all honesty, I was fine if dying fixed the problem. I almost got my wish.


June 26, 2017.  I was on evening shift (2PM-10PM) and after waking up at noon from last night's drinking, I got myself ready for work.  My son was next door at my in-laws house, and as I walked over to say my goodbyes as I prepared to head into work, I found that climbing the two steps leading up to their front door was almost insurmountable.  I walked into their living room and was unable to catch my breath. At that time, my in-laws, who are two of the greatest people I have ever had the fortune of knowing in my life, had seen enough. They, like everyone else, were tired of what I had become.  My mother in law told me she was calling me an ambulance, and I was going to the hospital. If I refused to go, she was calling my friend and supervisor, Andy Essery.  I knew her threat was real.  I knew she meant everything she said, and he was the last person I wanted to face at that particular point in time. But I also knew something was terribly wrong and I needed help: With my drinking, my health, my life.  Everything.  


I boarded the ambulance around 1:30 that afternoon and the last thing I remember seeing was my son.  I began to think about everything I put my kids through. I had essentially been a non-factor in my daughter's senior year of high school and almost wasn't invited to her high school graduation.  My son, however, had dealt with it on a deeper level.  


I, like my own dad, was my son's hero.  His whole life, he had always looked up to me and had never caused me a minutes problem in the process.  He watched as his hero boarded the ambulance on a stretcher. The look on his face was that of concern, relief, and downright sadness.  The thought of what I had done, how I had been living, and what it had done to my closest loved ones, became too much for me. And I broke down in the back of that ambulance.  I was taken to St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, which was about 7 minutes from my house. I was as honest with the doctors and nurses as I had been with anyone in a long time.  I realized that whatever it was that was wrong with me, needed fixing. I knew I needed help and this was how I was going to get it. There was no denial anymore. Something was wrong with me, in more ways than one, and the time had finally come where I couldn't put it off or deny it anymore.  


I spent the night in St. Joseph's and to no surprise to anyone, all their tests had concluded that I was in liver failure.  I had damaged my liver to the point where they at St. Joes couldn't do anything for me. They made arrangements with the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) in Baltimore, and the next day, I was transported down there by ground.  I arrived at UMMC and waited for what seemed like an eternity before landing in a room on the 8th floor of the Hepatology unit. There's a way cooler name for it, but that name escapes me at the moment.  


After a while, and several tests later, I was greeted by Dr. ___, who came to be the leader of the cadre of doctor's I was going to have during my stay there.  Dr. ___ came into my room and shook my hand as he introduced himself. Then, he said the words to me that I will never forget as long as I live, and probably the words that saved my life.  He looked me in the eyes and said, "Mr. Hoke, if I were you, I wouldn't expect to walk out of this hospital."  


At that moment, everything came to a grinding halt.  It was as blunt and honest as anyone had been with me in a long time, and it was exactly what I needed to hear.  The images of my kids flashed before my eyes. The thought of not being there for my son's high school graduation next year, or my daughter's wedding in the way distant future, were the first two things I thought of.  And it was a wake-up call to end all wake-up calls.  


The situation was dire.  I was suffering from Stage 4 liver failure, early stage kidney failure, alcohol-induced hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver, along with a laundry list of other ailments.  Point being, I was dying. Rapidly. The doctor told me if I had not gotten on that ambulance at my mother in law's insistence, I would not have made it through the end of my shift.  Simply put, there stood a better than average chance I would have died later that night at work or would have fallen into a coma. Either way, the prognosis was not good.  


For two days, the doctors worked feverishly, putting me through round the clock testing, pumping fluid and bile out of my body and trying to see if there was anything, any part of the liver that could be saved or regenerated.  The answer was a colossal 'no'. I was in dire need of a liver transplant. My weight had ballooned to 279 pounds. A lot of which was attributed to the massive buildup of fluid, bile, and decomposing cells.  


On June 30, 2017, I was placed on the national donor list for a new liver.  My condition pushed me to the top spot on the East Coast for those patients needing a new liver.  As dire as my situation was, what I witnessed during my first few days in the hospital may have been the most beautiful thing I had ever experienced.  The outpouring of love, visitors, and well wishes from friends, family, and the police department was absolutely overwhelming. Several months later, Dr. ___ would tell me that the main reasons they decided to give me a transplant, which they hesitate to do with people like me who did all the damage myself, was because I was a police officer, and due to the overwhelming love and support I was receiving during that first week in the hospital.  Just about everyone who came to see me told me they wanted to see the Paul they knew come back, not the lying drunken, asshole who replaced him. And they all wanted to see me get back to where I was, even if most never thought I would survive, let alone put on a police uniform again.   


Not everyone felt that way though.  My soon to be ex-wife, who had been by my side in the hospital for her own personal and despicable reasons, told me to my face that she had no idea why they were going through all this.  After all, I would be back drinking a week after I was released from the hospital anyway. Her statement was not without its validity, but it awoke something that I didn't think I had inside of me anymore.  It lit a fire I had long thought dead. Not only was I never going to drink again, but I swore then and there that to spite this bitch, I was coming back better than ever. She would later say some downright heinous things to me, but for the purposes of this post, I will just state that all she did was fill me with further resolve to come back all the way from this.  


Laying in the hospital awaiting word on whether or not you're going to live or die is a very sobering (pun intended) experience.  I thought a lot on a lot of things, but most of my thoughts came back to my family, my kids, and believe it or not, my job. As corny as it sounds, one of the things that motivated me during this time, was the want, or need, to get back in uniform and back to doing what I loved.  I had lost my way, and in the process had lost the ability to love my job as a police officer. The job sucks, we all know that, but I never stopped loving being a police officer. It's in my blood, it's who I am, and without it, I don't know that I would be the same person.  


Just about everyone was telling me my career was over.  I had my 20 and could retire at a certain percentage of a pension, but there was no way that after this, I would physically be able to meet the demands of the job.  Plus, there was still the issue of my knees. Even if I survived the transplant and the recovery, I still had to figure out what was wrong, and if the knees could possibly be fixed.  


My life was at a crossroads.  And that's when the guilt crept in.  Everything I was dealing with, everything I was struggling with, was 100% my fault.  That's a heavy burden to bear, especially knowing how easily it all could have been avoided.  As bad as my mental state was before going into the hospital, I had hit rock bottom. Even visits from friends and family weren't enough to cheer me up.  As one great friend told another as they were leaving my room after one visit, "we ain't never gonna see Paul again. That's a dead man lying there." And he was right.  Rock bottom soon followed when I had to call my father and tell him what was going on. With the exception of the phone call I received in Florida, March 17, 1993, this was the hardest phone call of my life.  


On July 3 or 4th, I can't remember which one it was, I received word that a donor liver had been located.  A young man in West Virginia had died tragically in a car crash and his liver was being transported in from the University of Pittsburgh.  Pittsburgh of all places. As a die-hard Baltimore Ravens fan, I had grown to despise anything and everything Pittsburgh. So it was only fitting that the one thing that would save my life would be coming from...Pittsburgh.  I looked up skyward and remembered thinking, "good one, God. Well played."  


On the morning of July 5, 2017, I was being prepped for surgery to transplant my liver.  I thought a lot about the young man who passed in order for me to live. It didn't seem fair.  I felt like the lowest form of life on Earth and the guilt that I carried with me, in some ways, continues today.  Conversely, it has also inspired me to keep my way as to serve the memory of that young man proud and ensure that he did not die in vain.  He died so that I might live.  That means more than anyone can know, and I carry that with me every day.  


The last thing I remember before surgery was counting down from 100 as they placed the anesthesia mask over my face.  I distinctly remember I got to 84. The next thing I remember was absolutely tremendous pain. My throat was on fire, my head throbbed, and my whole body felt like I had been in a car wreck.  I woke up in the UMMC surgical ICU groggy and not completely aware of what was happening. My wife, nurse, and staff were by my side and all seemed to be genuinely relieved I had awoken (except my wife of course).  I would later learn that during a transplant, they have to stop the free flow of blood. There's only one way to do that, and it's to medically stop your heart. The issue I had is they couldn't restart my heart right away and they had a hard time bringing me out of anesthesia.  I briefly died on the operating table is how it was explained to me. Not all that uncommon during this procedure, but it was a first for me, so I saw it as a big deal.  


One good thing that came out of this was my buddy Jed from work won $20 on the Death Pool they had going on me.  I got quite a kick out of that, the Death Pool, because it just goes to show you how demented, funny, close, and also a little sad the fraternity of police really is.  I loved it. And I missed it.  


After the transplant, I spent the next few weeks in UMMC recovering, rehabilitating, and in some cases, relearning how to do the simplest tasks such as walking to the bathroom and cleaning myself afterward.  What made matters worse was the terrible condition my knees were in, which only hampered my recovery. In truth, the weeks following transplant, were the hardest, most painful, disheartening weeks of my entire life.  Several times, the thought of just giving in crept into my mind. In that, I found a new level of mental toughness I didn't know I had. I kept thinking about all the doubters. All the awful things my wife had said, and the quality of life I wanted for me and my kids.  That was enough to push me.  


There were physical therapy, occupational therapy, and psychiatric sessions, which I participated in fully.  The physical part was the hardest. I had already made up my mind to come clean with myself in my head. So the head shrinker sessions were nothing more than me purging the mental ghosts that had haunted me for years.  I took full advantage of them, and it helped immensely and was very freeing. The physical part was way worse. Everything hurt. Laying in bed hurt. Sitting up hurt. The huge wound/scar that now runs across my chest and abdomen, hurt constantly, and continued to ooze to the point they had to open me back up and repair the staple job.  In short, it was worse than any hell I had ever fashioned for myself.  


But because I was mending mentally, I had the "Bring it On" mindset.  Bring it on. I was going to do whatever I needed to do to overcome this.  I was going to be back. On July 26, 2017, a month after initially checking in to St. Joseph's Medical Center, I was discharged from UMMC and sent to Kernan Hospital in Woodlawn for a week of rehab before being allowed to go home.  As much as I hated the thought of not being able to go home yet, I welcomed the challenge of getting in and out of Kernan as soon as I could. I busted my ass in PT and OT sessions, and after a week, I was discharged to return home.  But it was not the end.


Upon returning home, it was deemed I still needed essentially round the clock care.  I stayed with my in-laws initially and used my time making the best of the at-home PT sessions and doctoral visits.  Many of my co-workers and supervisors visited me during this time, and my son became my ever-present watchdog, making sure I stayed on course and challenging me to be better.  I had weekly doctor visits and blood work to make sure I was staying on point, taking my medications, and completely abstaining from all forms of alcohol.  Of the 14 medications I was initially prescribed, with each doctor visit, I was weaned off one here and one there.  


I was doing everything I needed to, and I was seeing the fruits of my labor finally paying off.  My weight, which had once ballooned to 279 pounds, was down to 220 and dropping thanks to a strict adherence to a healthy, well-balanced diet.  I was regaining strength in my core and transitioned from a walker to a cane in order to move around. I got myself into a routine, and that, along with everything else, was paying dividends in the form of me actually feeling healthier for the first time in a long time.  


Then came the biggest hurdle of my entire recovery period. October 9, 2017.  I returned to work on a light duty basis. I had still not yet been cleared to drive, so I needed rides to and from work.  My coworkers and family all chipped in to make sure I had a ride, and even though I still needed a cane to move, I was back at work about 6 months faster than expected.  I continued to work hard and by January of 2018, I did something no one ever expected. I returned to work full duty. I was back in uniform, with my badge and gun. I had a few co-workers come up to me and tell me that I proved them wrong, and they couldn't have been happier.  I continued with my recovery and post-transplant treatment as directed by my doctor's and even they were somewhat surprised by the progress I had made. With everything going ahead of schedule, that left me with one more thing that needed attention for me to consider myself better.  I needed to figure out what was wrong with my knees.


Walking and moving had gotten to the point where even being assigned to the desk was a liability.  While I was indeed back to full duty, that seemed to be more out of respect for my time served then what my physical abilities actually were.  In fact, one of my friends and co-workers even asked me to not walk to or from the precinct from the parking garage in uniform with my terrible limp; thought it made the police look bad.  I had to do something. I made an appointment with the same orthopedic doctor who did my mother in law's hip replacements. In the appointment, the main focus was on my knees, however, the X-Rays still showed no damage.  When one of the PA's asked me to demonstrate my gait, she made an observation that changed everything.  She noticed my problems seemed to be centered around my hips, and not my knees.  Subsequent X-Rays showed I was suffering from Stage 4 avascular necrosis of both hips.  Apparently, my years of alcohol abuse had depleted the blood supply to my hips and the hips, sockets, and the cells themselves had simply begun dying.  This, it was deemed, was the cause of most, if not all of the pain and deformation of my legs and knees.  


Because I had to modify my gait, I had caused certain muscles to deform or atrophy, and only surgery could correct it.  Between July - November 2018, I underwent two hip replacements made necessary by the same abuse of alcohol that caused my liver and other health problems.  As I recovered from both surgeries, which was nothing compared to the surgery and recovery from the transplant, I noticed I could walk and function better then I had in a long time.  To the point where I spoke with my supervisors about the possibility of a return to the street.  


In April of 2019, I did something I had not done in 4 years.  I worked a post car. I strapped on my vest and gunbelt and did something NO ONE thought I was ever going to do again.  In less than two years, I went from a bloated 279 pound dying mess with stage 4 liver failure, back to a 175 pound fully functioning patrol officer.  And I had never been happier to log on in service in a radio car in my entire career. I was back. And I was better than ever because, coupled with new and improved physical health, I was as mentally stable and healthy as I had been in a long, long time.  


I also became something I had always wanted to be, an informal leader amongst my shift for the younger generation of police officers.  Whereas I was once the butt of their jokes, I was now the veteran officer they were coming to for guidance and advice.  


In my personal life, I was also back to being a father my kids could be proud of.  Even given the last few years, my relationship with both my son and daughter has essentially never been stronger.  They are both adults now, and while my daughter is thriving at Auburn University, my son is living with me and in the process of becoming a Baltimore County Police Officer.  It is after all, as he says, the family business.  


In closing, my main goal in sharing my story is in the hopes that someone else out there, who may be struggling with some of the same demons that I was, may hear it and find that it helps them.  I wouldn't wish what happened to me on my own worst enemy. It cost me my house, my family, and years with my kids that I can never get back. It also cost me in other ways which can't be measured, and almost cost me my life.  


My hope is that my experiences can help others either ask for help, or help someone they see as falling prey to the same things that plagued me.  As hard as it was for me to go through, I wouldn't change one second of what I went through because it has allowed me to emerge as happy and healthy, both mentally and physically, as I have been in years.  Thank you for allowing me to share my story.


Yours very truly with warmest regards,


Officer First Class Paul R. Hoke #4031

Baltimore County Police Department

Towson Precinct #6”