KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Lowell Russell used to start each day with a two-mile run.
Now his days revolve around physical therapy.
“I have to pace myself,” he said. “That’s probably the most difficult thing — going from being able to do about anything I wanted to waking up in a hospital bed barely able to move. I’m one of those people who likes to be on the go, and not being able to do that’s very frustrating.”
The Tennessee Highway Patrol sergeant nearly died March 13 when a tractor-trailer slammed into his cruiser on Interstate 40 West in Knoxville. THP officials said the rig’s driver, Eric Dewayne Lewis of Orlando, Fla., fell asleep at the wheel and smashed into the patrol car as Russell, 37, sat inside finishing paperwork on the shoulder of the interstate near the Walker Springs exit just before 3 a.m.
Russell owes his life to the police officers, paramedics, passerby and tractor-trailer driver who worked against the clock to pull him from the wreckage as the car burned.
“I’m just lucky the right people were there at the right time,” he said.
Nearly 10 months later, Russell continues to recover from his injuries. He’s left the hospital bed behind and returned to his home in Vonore, Tenn., where he grew up and got his start in law enforcement as a Monroe County deputy.
Rehabilitation therapy consumes most of his time, whether physical therapy for the neck and spinal fractures he suffered that day, visual therapy for his eyes or speech therapy for his vocal cords, still weak from smoke inhalation and the impact of the crash. He spends about four days a week in one therapy session or another.
His neck and shoulders remain weak. He can turn his head and neck only so far since doctors fused the first four vertebrae of his spine. His eyes don’t always focus at the same time.
“When he first came in, his endurance was low,” said Jennifer Shepherd, his physical therapist at Blount Memorial Total Rehabilitation at Tellico West in Vonore. “But he’s come so far. He’s a miracle.”
Sometimes Russell drops by the THP district headquarters in Knoxville to visit old friends. Russell has spent nearly 15 years with the agency — including seven as a road trooper in his native county and a year as a road sergeant in the Knoxville district — and said he still hopes to wear his badge again, maybe before the end of the new year.
“I’ve still not heard anything (from doctors) about if I’m going to be able to return to work, even though that’s my goal,” he said. “I’d be back tomorrow if I could. That’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to be.”
Russell spends his time in between therapy sessions trying to promote support for veterans and local law enforcement, such as an appearance at Cleveland State Police Academy’s fall graduation, and raising money for the Frankie Watson Memorial Scholarship, which honors the family friend Russell raised like a son.
Watson died Sept. 24, 2011, while serving with Marine reservists from Knoxville’s Delta Company of the 4th Combat Engineer Battalion in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Russell helped present the scholarship to its first recipient, Sequoyah High School graduate Scotty Bowers, last year.
Russell looks forward to presenting the award again this year — and to the day he climbs behind the wheel of a cruiser again.
“I’m slowly getting better,” he said. “People keep telling me they’re praying for me. I tell them to keep it up. It’s working.”
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.