A year of `adjustments'

Transition: Partially paralyzed from a diving accident in 2000, Annapolis City Attorney Paul Goetzke might face another challenge: the loss of his job.

January 01, 2002|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

Paul G. Goetzke is fidgeting. As he speaks, he works a black plastic knob to tilt his wheelchair forward. He talks some more and rocks back.

Tomorrow marks a year since Goetzke returned to his job as the attorney for the city of Annapolis after a diving accident paralyzed him from the chest down. Now, he might be at another crossroads in his life as he faces a precarious future under a new mayor who is replacing city department heads with a new team -- while planning to reorganize the city's law office.

In his City Hall office recently, where a large oak desk was removed to accommodate his wheelchair, Goetzke is uncomfortable talking about the possibility that he could lose the job he has held for eight years.

Instead, he says, he is focused on fine-tuning his new skills -- the "adjustments," he calls them, to life as a quadriplegic. Goetzke, who can move his arms, uses voice-recognition software on his computer and enters telephone numbers with an unsharpened pencil attached to his wrist brace. Once right-handed, he now has more control over his left hand and has learned to sign his name with it, although he complains that his signature does not look the same.

But more significant than the adjustments are the changes that occurred as he slowed down and reflected on the life that was altered in a split-second that summer day a year and a half ago. Among them was the decision to give up the private practice that ate away the extra hours of his day -- time he now spends with his wife and their two young children.

"If I had my 40 years back out of the chair, I would spend a heck of a lot more time out of my chair with my family instead of out of my chair in the office," Goetzke says.

Now, when he is asked to name his long-term goals, Goetzke puts being the best father and husband he can be at the top of his list.

He hopes he would have said the same thing two years ago. But he is not confident of that.

In those days, Goetzke was known for his ambition and professional drive.

Goetzke's life changed in an instant of instinct over evaluation, a moment of miscalculation by an otherwise meticulous man.

The day was August 10, 2000, six weeks after his 40th birthday. A group of Maryland politicians skipped work to go boating on the Potomac. Goetzke and his companions -- two small-town mayors, the director of a lobbying group and a high-ranking state official -- were relaxed and jovial. They chatted about their careers and their futures.

Goetzke showed off on the water skis, his hair shining in the sunlight.

"In a split second, a perfect day turned into the gloomiest day I have ever experienced," recalls Scott Hancock, executive director of the Maryland Municipal League.

The men docked the boat at a waterfront restaurant on the Virginia side of the river. Hancock was on the boat with its owner, Richard J. Castaldi, director of intergovernmental affairs for the governor's office, and Robert J. Alt, mayor of Elkton. Jack A. Gullo Jr., then mayor of New Windsor, floated in the water nearby.

Goetzke, who grew up near the Severn River, was first on the dock, about 6 feet above the murky water.

Gullo saw a flash of movement. Hancock heard a splash. Then they saw Goetzke floating in the water, as if playing dead.

"People started saying, `Come on, Paul, come on, Paul,' like he was goofing around," Gullo recalls.

He wasn't.

Gullo, a former lifeguard, pulled Goetzke's head from the water and cradled his upper body in his arms. Goetzke told them he was OK and asked them to help him to his feet. But Gullo looked down and saw that Goetzke's feet were dangling. Hancock, a former paramedic, supported him under his body, keeping his spine straight until an ambulance arrived.

Later, Goetzke would explain what happened: From the dock he looked down to see that his prescription sunglasses had fallen in the water. Without thinking, he says, he dived in after them.

The water was 3 feet deep.

"I don't recall hitting bottom or feeling any snap," Goetzke says. He remembers trying to swim to the top and being unable to move his arms. He also recalls feeling the water -- but not below his chest.

Having worked on a case involving a woman who was paralyzed at the C-5 vertebra, Goetzke quickly realized what had happened.

"He said, `I have a C-5 injury. ... I know what I've done,'" Hancock recalls.

Floating paralyzed in the water, Goetzke began worrying about his family: his wife, Suzie, a high school English teacher, and their two young children. He barked instructions to his companions, telling them to call Suzie and giving them her telephone number.

Goetzke was taken by helicopter to Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church, Va., where he underwent surgery to fuse his fractured vertebra, and where he would remain for about six weeks.

News of Goetzke's accident quickly spread throughout Annapolis, where he has spent nearly his whole life, almost always living or working within a few blocks of his childhood home in the Murray Hill neighborhood.

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