A year of 'adjustments'


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.

From his hospital bed, hooked up to a ventilator, Goetzke listened while his brother read him the newspaper articles describing his accident. Goetzke's brother paged a reporter with a complaint: the fact that there was still hope for a full recovery was not mentioned prominently enough in the story. Paul Goetzke wanted everyone to know that he might walk again.

Eighteen-month window

A year and a half later, Goetzke no longer holds out that hope.

The best chance for that type of recovery is during the first 18 months, when the swelling can decrease, when physical therapy can increase movement, he says. Goetzke has developed more control of his arms, but he remains paralyzed from the chest down. He says he does not follow stem cell research or other experiments that some hope will lead to a cure for spinal cord injuries.

Still, he's thankful.

After Goetzke left the hospital in Falls Church, he spent almost two months on the second floor of Good Samaritan Hospital in Baltimore in a ward filled with patients with spinal cord injuries. Many of them seemed to have little family support, while Goetzke, the eighth of 10 children, could rely on family and friends to visit him often and help him adapt to his new life.

His friends and family raised about $200,000 for an elevator to be installed in his Davidsonville home and a van to help him get around.

As he worried about his return to work, he met several patients -- including a bricklayer, a professional scuba diver and a carpenter -- who were coming to grips with the reality that they would have to find new professions.

"I knew I'd have to develop new systems, but I never doubted I'd be able to work," Goetzke says. "I was very lucky that I made my living with my head rather than my hands."

Goetzke began working from home in January last year, five months after his accident. In February, he argued -- and won -- a case in federal District Court.

However, he was back in the hospital on the anniversary of his accident, suffering from a high fever. Doctors were unsure why.

Goetzke spends some days working from home and significantly less time in the courtroom. Before his accident, he handled city litigation and passed contract work and other such matters to outside attorneys. Now, he says, he focuses more on that kind of work, because it can be done from his office: "Trying cases involves a lot more choreography than it used to."

Patience has increased

During the last year and a half, Goetzke has learned a lot about himself. Known to be assertive and a bit brazen, he has become more patient with others -- at work and at home.

Before, if Goetzke wanted something done, he did it himself. Now he has to rely on others, Suzie Goetzke notes.

He spends more time with their children than he did before. Sometimes, he spends afternoon watching cartoons with them. Before his accident, he frequently took 8- year-old son, Hobey, and 5-year- old daughter, Kathryn, for rides on the back of his bicycle. Now, the children -- and their cousins and friends -- like to ride on the back of his wheelchair.

While Suzie cooks dinner, Paul often joins her in the kitchen just to spend time with her."'Call me when it's ready' is how it used to be," she says.

Goetzke has been approached by disability advocates asking him to take on disability cases. Although he won't turn away such work, he says he has no desire to be "a professional quadriplegic," and he wants to continue his work in municipal law. Some who know him have suggested he seek a judgeship or enter politics. Goetzke says he might consider those options.

He does not want to talk about the possibility that his days as city attorney might end now that Ellen O. Moyer has been elected mayor. Instead, he is content with his new approach to life.

"I see attorneys now who are busy with their practices and I tell them, 'The work will always be there, but your kids will grow up before you know it,'" he says.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad