AUGUSTA — There are the fingers that now work well enough to type, albeit slowly, and the legs that suddenly can contract upon command, but these may not be the surest signs that Police Chief Robert Gregoire’s life is beginning to return to normal after a spinal injury suffered during a motorcycle crash last fall left him with diminished use of his arms and legs.

Maybe the biggest difference in Gregoire a month after returning to work is how easily conversations shift from his injuries to the work of heading up the city’s Police Department.

“I’m back to myself now,” Gregoire said Friday, a broad smile creasing his face. “Now that I’m out, my personality’s back to where it should be.”

The progress in Gregoire’s physical improvement is equally encouraging. Not only does he have movement in his legs, but the chief has gained significant core strength and his dexterity in both hands has improved to the point that he does most of his typing with his fingers rather than the voice activation software attached to his computer.

“I want to do more,” Gregoire said. “I used to type fairly fast, with both hands. Now it’s just pecking.”

Gregoire and his wife, Cathy Gregoire, see improvement every day. He used to lose balance easily in his motorized chair if forced to lean forward, but now he can hold himself steady. When he first came back to work, he wasn’t able to use the mouse to work his computer.

“I’ve gained enough I can use a regular mouse,” he said. “It’s one of those small gains. Those are just small challenges, small milestones, that you meet.”

Gregoire, 49, continues to have physical and occupational therapy once a week, but he still gets in a 40-hour week in the office.

He is back into his old routine, such as attending department head meetings — the other managers have agreed to meet in his office — and working on city ordinances and police policy. The Gregoires attended the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce’s annual banquet earlier this month, and the chief last weekend took part in the city’s annual goal-setting session. All of it, he says, is vital to his recovery.

“I think it’s all therapy,” he said. “Just staying active has made me stronger.”

MOVING THROUGH A CLOUD

Getting stronger has been Gregoire’s main purpose in life since Sept. 6, when he and Cathy were injured during a motorcycle ride to raise money for Shriners Hospitals for Children.

It had just started to rain as the couple, riding with a group of friends on Crash Road in Jay, skidded off the road on a curve. The motorcycle was thrown to the ground. Robert Gregoire was thrown off and onto the side of the road, where he slid down the grass. Cathy Gregoire went with the motorcycle to the ground.

The chief, who suffered a broken ankle, was in pain, but he thought he was OK. He never lost consciousness and never knew the severity of his injury until he arrived at Central Maine Medical Center’s emergency room and attendants discovered he had no feeling.

An MRI revealed Gregoire had damaged his spinal cord between the fifth and sixth vertebrae.

Gregoire was transferred briefly to CMMC’s rehabilitation hospital before moving Sept. 22 to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. He remained in Boston until Nov. 25.

Doctors told Cathy Gregoire the first night that it would be at least six weeks before her husband could move anything. They weren’t certain he’d regain any movement at all, but six weeks later Gregoire moved his thumb.

The Gregoires have described the injury as a cloud that hides the limbs from the mind. The hope is getting movement through that cloud. Once there is movement, the muscles can be strengthened. Gregoire regained movement in his legs the day after Christmas and now can move his toes and feet.

“I’m optimistic that at some point, with therapy and hard work, I’ll be back up,” he said. “I’m not going to be up next week. It’s going to be weeks and months of therapy.”

‘NOTHING COMES EASILY’

The Gregoires have prepared emotionally for that process and are trying to prepare financially. While praising his insurance company, Robert Gregoire said there is a lot that just isn’t covered. For example, therapists have stressed the importance of putting weight on his legs to help them prepare to carry him. To do that therapy, Gregoire needed a special chair that allows him to stand. The chair, which cost $4,500, was not covered by insurance. Gregoire said he is about halfway through the therapy sessions alloted by the insurance company. When the insurance runs out, the Gregoires will have to pay for the sessions out of pocket.

“There’s nothing cheap when it comes to medicine,” he said.

Gregoire has always been an early riser, often by 4:30 a.m., and he used the time to read the newspaper, work out or go for a walk with his wife. Now he’s getting up early so that he can take the two hours needed to get ready for the day and still be in the office by 7 a.m.

“It’s learning how to do the same things differently,” Gregoire said. “Nothing comes easily.”

Gregoire’s list of people to whom he feels grateful continues to grow. That list begins with his wife, who has been at his side throughout his ordeal and who spends much of her time helping her husband do what he needs to be at work and to improve.

“I still need help with the day-to-day stuff,” he said.

Gregoire said he also appreciates all the city has done to help with his return to work and to the men and women under him who carried on so well in his absence and with his return. Gregoire is most thankful that Cathy Gregoire was not injured more severely and that he gets to continue to enjoy life with her.

“I’m still thankful that this is all that happened,” Gregoire said.

Many people who suffer spinal cord injuries never get a chance to improve, and perhaps most never have a chance to return to work. For that, too, Gregoire is thankful.

“It’s good be back to work,” he said. “I’ve done this job for almost 27 years now. It’s part of who you are.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @CraigCrosby4


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