Carl Dobrich and his family discuss his recent life threatening surgery for aortic dissection and how his healthy will have a new meaning for Father's Day. (Chuck Berman, Chicago Tribune)

The Illinois State Police captain was used to taking command in high-profile cases, among them overseeing dozens of officers in the investigation that led to the arrest of former Bolingbrook police Sgt. Drew Peterson.

But in September, when a life-threatening heart condition swept Carl Dobrich into an operating room, the 6-foot-6, 260-pound recently retired officer was forced to turn over control to a team of surgeons and to his wife, Kathy, who knew he still had a job to do — as a father.

"The surgeons came out and they were telling me it wasn't working, and they didn't know what they were going to do," Kathy Dobrich recalled of the day that changed her family's life.

"I said, 'No. This man has four children. My youngest is 10. You have to go back in there and fix him.'"

This weekend, the Dobrichs will celebrate the first Father's Day after the health scare that left the police captain — who once lived for 18-hour work days — relearning how to walk, eat and get dressed.

It's been a grueling recovery, in which the burly patriarch has leaned on his wife and three daughters to help him out of bed or to drive him to doctors' appointments. His 10-year-old son, Michael, often slept on the floor at his father's bedside.

Yet, supported by visits from troopers in uniform, a refrigerator filled with casseroles from neighbors and even get-well cards from families swept up in the Peterson case, Dobrich said the past nine months have been an eye-opening reminder of what matters most.

"Take everything that you're doing now and realize it could all be wiped away with a stroke of a brush," Dobrich said. "I'm used to the sirens, but I was the victim this time. I was the injured person."

The Peterson case

For decades, Dobrich, 55, of Mokena, thrived under the stress that came with his work at the Illinois State Police.

He started as a trooper in southern Illinois, and in 1994 he was assigned to the Chicago Police Department research and development division, where he got training that eventually led him into investigations.

After seven years in drug investigations, in 2006 Dobrich was promoted to captain and posted to the state police office in Joliet.

One of the first major cases under Dobrich's watch, in June 2007, involved Christopher Vaughn of Oswego. More than five years later, Vaughn was convicted of killing his wife and three children in the family SUV after telling them they were headed to a water park.

Dobrich vividly remembers arriving at the scene on a frontage road off Interstate-55 near Channahon. He wasn't able to make sense of how a family with so many similarities to his own — three kids, a teenage daughter reading a Harry Potter book — could have experienced such horror.

"I couldn't believe what I saw," Dobrich said. "I still remember looking at them and thinking, 'Why aren't they moving?'"

Knowing fellow troopers would probably feel similar distress, Dobrich urged them to talk about their feelings, either with the state police chaplain, other professionals or with their families.

Not long after the investigation led to Vaughn's arrest, Dobrich learned in October 2007 that he and his team would be responsible for the case of a missing Bolingbrook woman, Stacy Peterson.

At the time, Dobrich didn't realize the missing woman was the fourth wife of Drew Peterson, whose third wife, Kathleen Savio, had been found dead in the bathroom of her home a few years earlier. That case had been investigated by the state police and ruled an accident. Peterson retired from the Bolingbrook police department during the investigation.

The new state police captain worked with the Will County state's attorney's office to have the Savio case reopened. Dobrich spent the next two years overseeing the separate investigations. The process involved dozens of investigators following thousands of leads.

A typical day's work, he said, included intense conversations with crime scene technicians, detailed consultations with FBI profilers and news conferences for local and national media outlets.