Peter Laboy perched on a step stool in the Alexandria Police Department, the simple task of inventorying uniform shirts vexing him. He stared for a while at a row of boxes — never opening any to perform a count — then keyed in a number on his computer. His figures were close, but often wrong. Minutes in, focus was lost.
“You got some breakfast?” he yelled out suddenly, jumping down to greet a man at the property room window.
Peter used to be a swashbuckler in these hallways, a 46-year-old father of four who flirted with becoming a fighter pilot but figured “you can’t have it more dangerous than riding a police motorcycle.” He was aggressive and dedicated, known among colleagues for pulling a lot of people over and writing a lot of tickets.
Then, a little more than a year ago, he was shot in the head.
His recovery has been nothing short of remarkable. He makes breakfast for his kids some mornings, casually jokes about his injury with other officers. Some even ask when he’ll be back up on his bike. Meet him briefly, and you would never know anything was wrong.
But his return to real police work, at least now, seems doubtful. There are seizures, therapy, and frustration that can be worse than physical pain. He grows impatient quickly and can’t always persuade his body to carry out tasks he’s set on doing. Sometimes, just getting up in the morning is difficult.
Surviving, it seems, was the easy part. Now Peter must wrestle the expectations that come with life.
“They say, ‘You look great,’ ” Peter said, “But then, they don’t understand what’s going on inside my brain.”
First introduced at a police department comedy night, Suzanne and Peter Laboy enjoyed a whirlwind courtship. All of their children from previous relationships met the day after they did, their families filling several booths at a Chipotle. Less than a year later, they were married.
Their life together was the good kind of busy. “He worked 40-plus hours, I worked 40-plus hours. We maintained a home and raised kids,” Suzanne said. To find one-on-one time, she said, Peter would occasionally stop by Inova Alexandria Hospital, where she worked as a nurse, to have lunch and 30 minutes of deep conversation.
“When we’d do it, it’d be so intense,” Suzanne said.
Suzanne works at the hospital only intermittently now. Most of her time is devoted to caring for her husband. She keeps Peter on a rigorous schedule of doctor’s appointments and lunch dates. On the weekends, she tries to persuade him to visit museums and monuments in the District with her.
He is often resistant.
Since the injury, Peter seems to have been beset by an “unemotional, kind of ‘eh’ ” attitude, Suzanne said. He watches a lot of movies — he saw “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Gravity” and “The Hunger Games” recently — but on many days cannot bring himself to perform even simple household tasks.
“I need to clean that desk. I need to clean my side of the room and organize my shed and organize my tools and things like that,” he said one day, reflecting on his injury. “It doesn’t happen.”
Peter knows he has changed. He is distracted easily and is quick to become agitated.
“With good reason,” he said, “but not to get that upset.”
He cannot articulate why.
“With brain injury, I think it’s a little bit harder,” Suzanne said, “because sometimes he can’t think past the idea.”
The best Peter can recall, he was crossing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in February 2013, returning from getting his motorcycle serviced in Maryland, when a call to look out for a yellow minivan cab came through. He radioed the dispatcher.
“I remember saying, ‘I’m close, I’m going to respond,’ ” Peter said.
Peter does not remember if he exchanged words with the cab’s driver or even if he got off his bike. According to witnesses and law enforcement officials, the encounter seems to have been an ambush, an unprovoked shooting by the driver, 28-year-old Kashif Bashir, who would later be found to have mental defects so severe he was deemed unfit to stand trial.
The bullet pierced areas of Peter’s brain responsible for personality, initiating activities and executive functioning — meaning the ability to string together complex tasks. It was lodged inside, and remains there.
A neurosurgeon at MedStar Washington Hospital Center cut off two large sections of Peter’s skull to allow his brain to swell and removed the dead tissue. Doctors and nurses prepared Suzanne for the possibility that she could become a widow and single mother.
Peter surprised them almost instantly.
In the neurological intensive care unit, nurse Helen Safdie leaned in and whispered in his ear, “Officer Laboy, your wife’s here, your kids are here, everybody’s here . . . show me a thumbs up.”
Up came both thumbs. The room erupted in cheers.
“Everything we had heard about this guy, we expected him to not move, not do anything for us,” said Charlie Sederstrom, the intensive care unit’s clinical-care facilitator. “So then when he starts to move and follow commands, neurologically, that is huge. Your brain is communicating with your body and telling it to do things someone else is asking you to perform.”
Etched on Peter’s shoulder is a tattoo of the Superman logo. It is an emblem he got for no particular reason nearly a decade ago.
As Peter lay in the hospital, Suzanne began blogging about her husband’s progress, calling her site “Superman.”
“Peter is making unbelievable strides hour by hour,” she wrote in a March 2013 entry. “It’s surprising but not really. He’s my husband and I know how he thinks and what he’s capable of.”
But the journey forward was arduous. In rehabilitation, getting showered and dressed in an hour proved difficult. At one point, when Peter was handed a washcloth, he could not wash his face. Though his muscles were strong enough, he would sometimes be unable to get up, said Lauren Russell, his physical therapist.
“He knew what he needed to do, but he couldn’t initiate the activity to get out of bed or to communicate,” Russell said.
Some of the same problems persist.
One recent morning, Peter awoke at 6:30 a.m., tapped his wife on the shoulder and asked her, “Are you going to get up?” Her back was hurting, so she asked if he could get their kids off to school.
He did, but then went back to bed. At 9:40 a.m. — with a 10 a.m. meeting on the schedule — Suzanne called, “Peter, you going to get out of bed?”
“Mmhmm,” he yelled back.
He emerged from the shower at 10:30 a.m.
Peter still suffers from seizures, so he cannot drive. Many other problems — like his occasional tardiness — are subtle, but that does not make them any less real.
It has been hard, too, for his boys, ages 5 to 15, who worry about their father. The oldest even keeps an eye on him while Suzanne is out.
That Peter looks and sounds much like he always has only compounds the frustration.
“Has anyone seen my husband?” Suzanne wrote this March in a blog post she called “Missing.” “He’s the good looking one on Motor 8. . . . Sometimes he takes the kids golfing at TOPGOLF or to the movies. Sometimes he’s in the front yard working on the lawn. Has anyone seen him? I can’t seem to find him lately. I only see someone who sometimes looks like him. He says ‘I’m the new Peter.’ Sometimes I want the old one back.”
At a recent appointment, a neuropsychologist asked Peter what he wanted to accomplish that day. He shrugged. When she asked how he was feeling, he answered in one word: “Bored.”
Peter and his wife used to talk of his return to work. Now he takes the attitude, “Everything I wanted to do as a police officer, I’d done.”
Peter stopped volunteering at the police department recently, and what is next is uncertain. He bought some camera equipment and an instructional DVD about photography. It remains mostly unused.
Doctors say his struggle is common for patients with traumatic brain injuries — especially those who, physically, have recovered so well.
“Somewhat ironically, once you get through those big hurdles — which not everybody does — then those other steps become more important,” said Kritis Dasgupta, medical director of the brain injury program at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital. “I think initially, when he was in a coma, there was no question of whether he would have the same personality.”
Peter’s alleged attacker, Bashir, was recently declared incompetent to stand trial. Peter said he does not feel strongly about the determination, although he hopes Bashir eventually “gets convicted of something.”
Peter knows he must focus on himself.
There is reason for optimism. Doctors say that while patients with traumatic brain injuries improve most rapidly in the first few years, there is no set time at which they stop getting better. Peter notes that former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords drove a car about three years after she was shot in the head near Tucson in 2011. He hopes to do that even sooner.
At an April ceremony, the Alexandria Police Department and the Chamber of Commerce honored Peter with a Gold Medal of Valor. Everyone stood and applauded as Peter smiled on stage. Afterward, he took a selfie, grinning and biting his medal.
The episode was a flash — however brief — of the old Peter, the one who rode his police motorcycle with a swagger, the one Suzanne sometimes feels she has lost. It was undeniable proof of the mantra that Peter says he repeats to anyone who asks about his injury.
“I’m still here.”