Tales from the Couch

Seeing the patient from psychiatry’s perspective

Saved By a Cup of Joe

A life changed in an instant

Phil was a 40 year old cop with 18 years on the force. I saw him in consultation after an incident one night in Bridgeport.

While on patrol, Phil and his partner received a radio call about a fire in a clothing store. With Phil driving, they arrived at the scene and saw a burning carton inside the darkened store. Fire trucks were on the way.

Before the call, they’d stopped at a Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee. As his partner got out of the patrol car to investigate, Phil took a sip of the coffee, set the cup on the dash and leaned back. The front window of the patrol car exploded. Phil felt a sledgehammer-like blow near his right armpit. His body slammed back and he fell onto the seat. He was shot. He reached for the radio, but couldn’t get to it. About to lose consciousness, he realized his partner was shoving him over in order to hop into the patrol car and take off. The vehicle stalled. 

Bullets hit the car’s hood and doors. Phil’s partner got the vehicle started and raced to a nearby hospital, where Phil underwent a series of surgeries for severe nerve and muscle damage to a group of nerves in the armpit.

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Weeks later, Phil had only limited use of his weakened right arm, could barely lift things, and felt burning sensations down the arm. He felt severe pain, especially in cold weather. He could no longer work as a police officer. He was forced to take a disability pension. He’d always wanted to be a cop and had planned on a 25 year career. But it was not to be.

The perp was caught after committing another crime. He confessed to having shot Phil from the roof of a four-story building across the street. He’d set the small fire, hoping to ambush police and firefighters. 

Phil became depressed and dreamed nightly about the incident and its profound repercussions for his career and life. Every twinge of pain reminded him of the shattering glass, the shots in the dark, the blood, his fear and confusion, and the frantic ride to the hospital. He’d developed PTSD in addition to depression. 

During the consultation, Phil said, “You know what, Doc? The guy’s rifle had a four-power scope and the cross hairs were targeted right on my heart. But when I leaned back after putting the coffee on the dashboard, the bullet hit me near the right armpit. If I hadn’t leaned back when the guy pulled the trigger, he’d have shot me in the heart. I was saved by a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee.”

A few moments passed, and Phil continued, “And now…because I can’t take the cold weather, we’re moving to Florida.”

Tears welled in his eyes and he looked away.

“You know what they call Florida?” he asked.

“What?”

“God’s waiting room,” Phil said, taking a final sip for the container of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee he brought into the consultation room.

Mark Rubinstein, M.D., is a former professor of psychiatry at Cornell. His most recent book is the novel Mad Dog House.

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