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Ronnie Polaneczky: Crash shattered her health, city shattered her illusions

LAST MONTH, the city buried Police Sgt. Timothy Simpson, who was killed in a violent car wreck when an allegedly drug-addled driver plowed into his cruiser.

Officer Sharon Sullivan with husband Mike Quinn.
Officer Sharon Sullivan with husband Mike Quinn.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff photographer

LAST MONTH, the city buried Police Sgt. Timothy Simpson, who was killed in a violent car wreck when an allegedly drug-addled driver plowed into his cruiser.

The funeral service that followed was nearly identical to those for three other officers killed in 2008:

A massively attended viewing. A glorious Mass. A police-motorcade escort to the cemetery.

Our goodbye showed, again, how much we honor those who perish in the line of duty.

What we don't seem to be as good at, says Police Officer Sharon Sullivan, is helping those who trump their life-altering brushes with death.

"Sometimes, I think the city wishes I had died," says Sharon, whose car wreck five years ago was eerily similar to Simpson's, except that she survived her injuries. "Then they could just give me the big funeral and be done with me."

On Dec. 20, 2003, Sharon Sullivan was a 24-year-old rookie officer assigned to the Sixth District, in Center City.

The daughter of a cop, she'd graduated just four weeks earlier from the Police Academy and was paired with Officer Raymond Plymouth, a 14-year veteran.

They were in their cruiser on Delaware Avenue, on traffic detail for a fatal hit-and-run near Dave & Buster's, when a Ford Focus driven by a drunken menace barreled toward them.

Sharon remembers nothing of the crash. Her first memory is of staring at the ceiling tiles in the ICU at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and wondering, "Where am I?"

Her injures were massive: A brain bleed. A concussion so severe, she was in a coma for three days. Broken back, ribs and left hip. A punctured lung. A torn ear, shattered teeth. But she was alive - a miracle in itself, says her husband, Mike Quinn.

"We were told she might not make it," says Mike, her boyfriend at the time. "It was touch-and-go for a while."

She spent six months recuperating and returned to work in July 2004, to a desk job. (Her injured partner, who was not interviewed for this column, also survived and returned to work.)

Still crippled by back and hip pain, she underwent physical therapy three times a week for 18 months. Then, without warning, she says, the city declared her recovered.

"I wasn't," she says. "There just wasn't anything more anyone could do for me."

Although by then she'd been on the force for two years, she'd had only one month of training with a veteran cop before her accident. And yet she was ordered to return to the streets, alone.

"I wasn't trained," she says. "I was in pain. I couldn't do what a cop is supposed to do. It didn't make any sense."

She soldiered on, she says, because she had no choice.

Finally, during parade duty on Thanksgiving 2006, she realized she could barely stand.

"My legs were shaking," she says. "I was at my wits' end."

This is where Sharon's story devolves into nonsense about how she fought the city, for months, for additional treatment that the Fraternal Order of Police discovered she was supposed to have gotten from the beginning.

"What they put her through is unconscionable," says FOP President John McNesby.

This year, Sharon's doctors concluded, after numerous therapies, that she is permanently disabled by her injuries. In August, the Civil Service Commission recommended that she be given a full disability, a benefit awarded by the city's Pension Board.

The city has appealed the commission's finding. And Sharon has been in limbo since.

"I think they just want me to go away," says Sharon, who receives workers' comp - half salary with no medical benefits - but could perform at a desk job like the one she had in 2004.

"I want to work," she says. "With a desk job, I could get up and move around every half-hour. But I've never been given that option. Instead, it's been five years of hell."

City risk manager Barry Scott says that it is routine for the city to proceed cautiously when it comes to awarding a full disability pension, a "very rich" benefit that grants a 70 percent salary.

"I think we're close to working something out with Officer Sullivan," he says. "We need to be sure the disabilities are the result of service-related injuries."

Sharon seethes when she hears that.

"I was fine before my accident," she says. "I was at the gym five days a week. I was a certified scuba diver. I ran at Eden Hall Park. I played softball. I was fit and strong. The accident took all of that from me."

What she has refused to let it take is motherhood. She and Mike are expecting their first child - a son - any moment now (she was due a week ago).

Pregnancy is tough on any woman. For Sharon, it's been an ordeal.

Just like the last five years.

E-mail or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns: Read Ronnie's blog at