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Accident cost Greenwich cop and father his leg, but not what matters most

September 6, 2016 GMT

GREENWICH — Greenwich Police Officer Frank DiPietro lost a limb, but regained his life.

A badly injured lower leg, the result of a ladder mishap, left DiPietro with a difficult choice in November of last year — nearly a year to the day he suffered the injury. He decided to have the leg taken off, with the advice of his doctors in New Haven.

“It wasn’t an easy thing walking into the hospital that day. But I knew I was going to turn another page in my life, and it was what I had to do to get back to what I love,” DiPietro said during a recent patrol of Long Island Sound on a Greenwich Police boat.

Being a cop, and a father to a three-year-old daughter, was what he loved doing, and the badly damaged leg was holding him back.

“I wanted to come back to work — this is always what I wanted to do,” recalled DiPietro, a married father of one. “And I told my doctors, ‘I’ve got to walk my daughter (Giuliana) down the aisle, and I’ve got to take her to Disneyland.’ ”

The amputation led to the use of a high-end prosthetic limb, and after months of arduous physical therapy, DiPietro was cleared for duty and back on the waters off Greenwich this July.

“It was tough getting to sleep the night before,” he recalled of his return to duty. “And it felt great coming back.”

DiPietro’s partner, Marine Technician Shawn Fox, said he did not doubt his partner’s resolve in returning to work.

“It’s great to have him back. Seeing what he’s been through — and the attitude he has — it’s awesome, he’s an inspiration,” Fox said.

DiPietro, 37, a 13-year veteran of the department, was out bow-hunting deer in town in November of 2014. He was climbing up to a deer stand when he accidentally fell off the third step. Something went terribly wrong when he hit the ground.

“I went to brush myself off, and I kept falling down,” he recalled, pulling up a post-accident X-ray of his leg on his cell phone to show what the internal damage looked like. The image resembles a mosaic pattern. “Shattered, like potato chips,” he observed.

The type of injury is called a Pilon fracture, and it was accompanied by severe nerve damage that set into the leg. A 10-hour surgery, followed by two follow-up surgeries, did not get him back on his feet — or ease the intense pain he was suffering.

“My foot felt like it was covered in acid, and when I walked, the acid got hotter and more intense,” he said. He felt anxious that he couldn’t run after his daughter in case she got into trouble. It was time to make a decision.

“My doctor said, ‘For a better quality of life, amputation might be the way this is going,’” the officer recalled.

A diligent type, used to fine-tuning boats and engines since he grew up in Byram, DiPietro got plenty of advice. He met with other cops with prosthetic limbs — unusual but not a rarity anymore, there are six amputees serving in uniform in Connecticut. He talked with people all over the region — particularly those who work in law-enforcement or take part in active pursuits. He had consultations with medical staff from as far away as Johns Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic.

Then it was done, the damaged leg was removed.

The latest in prosthetic design was in store for DiPietro, an Ossur device, from a company headquartered in Iceland, made of carbon fiber and stainless steel. It holds tight to his leg with a pin-lock device, and it adjusts to swelling and natural motion. It was beta-tested on members of the military, and reflects extensive new advances in the field of prosthetics that emerged from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where mines and explosive devices were the enemy’s weapons of choice against American troops.

“Unfortunately, it’s the blood of our soldiers that has brought us progress in prosthetics,” DiPietro observed.

There were hours and hours of learning to walk again, then learning to run. He suffered “phantom limb” pains, a curious neurological condition that the brain inflicts on itself when it senses a missing limb. But a five-second burst of pain, sort of like garden shears cutting his toe, he recalled, was nothing compared to the daylong acid bath he had lived with before the amputation. “It was a relief compared to the pain I had before,” DiPietro said.

The marine cop also had to overcome a psychological hesitation that often comes with an artificial limb. “Can I trust this thing? Is it really going to work?” he asked himself. “The biggest thing is trusting the prosthetic.”

The new limb does, in fact, work superbly. DiPietro’s gait looks normal, and he says he’s probably in better physical shape than he was in before the accident.

He remains thankful for the assistance and help he received along the way, from Greenwichites in all parts of the community who rallied behind him.

“The support I got from the Police Department, and the community — it was relentless. Not a moment did my family or I feel alone. I never had a chance to put my head down,” DiPietro said.

Then it was back on the boat in July. He’s been getting plenty of peg-leg pirate jokes since returning to work, and he’s happy to laugh along.

Having gone down a difficult path himself, DiPietro said he wants to offer advice and counseling to anyone considering amputation or recovering from it. “One day, I’ll be returning the favor that was given to me,” he said.

The other goal he plans to fulfill in the not-to-distant future: a trip to Disneyland with a little princess by his side.

Robert.Marchant@scni.com