By Tanya Connor
WORCESTER – No one would tell the East Hartford police officer he was blind. After all, he was supposed to be dead.
Todd Lentocha told this personal story – and signed copies of his just-published book – May 6 at the Divine Mercy Medicine, Bioethics & Spirituality Conference at the College of the Holy Cross.
He talked about what happened after a pickup truck traveling 73 miles per hour slammed into his parked cruiser. The cover of his self-published book, “Officer Down, Man Up,” features a photo of that mangled car.
His nurse Marie Romagnano, her voice breaking, showed the photo of the accident – and one of how he looked when she first saw him in the Hartford Hospital. She told listeners what most impressed her was how his wife, Alison, said, “No matter how he is, we want him.”
“I got the first draft of this book,” said Ms. Romagnano, conference organizer, a member of St. Joseph Basilica in Webster and a catastrophic injury registered nurse for her company, Med-Link Inc.
“And I got, ‘You’ve got to clean that up,’” Mr. Lentocha said of her response to his rough language.
Mrs. Lentocha, a registered nurse in ambulatory surgery at Manchester Hospital in Connecticut, spoke about the spiritual efforts made for her husband.
He introduced himself as a 45-year-old, married nearly 21 years, with three children, a former Marine, and, as of April 30, a published author.
Mr. Lentocha said his story started Jan. 4, 2012 when he was working overtime, looking for a burglary suspect. Hit by a speeding truck, he was knocked unconscious.
Mr. Lentocha said more than 90 percent of people with head injuries like his die. He was taken to surgery and for the next 30 days his wife didn’t leave the hospital.
Then he awoke and asked his wife what happened. She was shocked; as a nurse she understood the extent of his injuries. The next day he was sent to a rehabilitation hospital.
His short-term memory was horrible and he didn’t know he was blind, he said. He could distinguish shapes and colors and figured that, once off medication, he’d regain his sight.
Seventeen days after he started rehabilitation he went home, but didn’t recover his sight. Exams revealed his eyes and optic nerve were fine but a big piece of his brain was missing, he said, joking, “In the police business we call that a clue.”
But “I kept hope alive,” thinking, “Maybe the vision rehabilitation will get me to the point where I can do some things,” he said. A doctor told him, “Most people with this injury don’t make it; those who do are not like you.”
Mr. Lentocha said that statement “removed the burden of hope.” He’d been hoping his old life would return. He realized he had to move on.
He turned to writing, with help from a program that taught him to type, and listened to audio books by people who’d suffered adversity. Years before, he’d written a novel he never published. He found writing about his recovery therapeutic and wanted to show his children he didn’t quit when knocked down.
Mrs. Lentocha said the first person to reach her husband after the accident was passerby Rev. Mark Santostefano, pastor of The Worship Center in Hebron, Conn. He prayed for her husband there and visited daily at the hospital, praying in the room and waiting room.
Someone gave her a “Mary medal” which she wore, and each day she blessed her husband with holy oil. Sometimes she’d say, “I don’t know if you believe in this, but I do.” She said he was not religious, but they were raising their children Catholic.
At her church, a friend lit all the prayer candles for him, she said. And people gave her prayer shawls.
At a Mass that their priest said for her husband at the hospital, she thought about how to plan his funeral; his body was shutting down from medications used to keep him in a coma to rest his brain.
When the coma-inducing medications were stopped, he wiggled a toe. When she brought their children in, he started to cry, she said, adding, “I saw he was inside there.”
Now, she says, she’s sad for his losses and the losses she and their children have suffered.
“The good news is he’ll always see me as 39 years old,” she quipped, adding that she’s grateful they still have him. She also expressed gratitude for others’ support, mentioning cards, gifts, money and food.
“My faith in God … people … was restored” through this accident, she said.
Ms. Romagnano concluded the presentation, holding up the Divine Mercy image and saying, “This is what we had in the ICU.”