By Jordy Yager - 04/20/10 10:00 AM EDT
U.S. Capitol Police Special Agent Eric Hoar turned 29 years old last Thursday.
For his birthday, he has a simple request: continued unflinching support from Capitol Hill for what could be his toughest assignment yet.
Hoar has begun the challenge of recovering from an accident that could change his life.
As a special agent with the Capitol Police’s threat assessment division, Hoar was trained to outsmart criminals before they do harm to a member of Congress. Hoar, also a member of the Army Reserves, was pursuing a career goal of joining the Army’s Special Forces. He was poised to take the unit’s entrance test after having trained for months.
He now rests and recovers in Washington’s National Rehabilitation Hospital.
“I’ve just been taking it day by day,” said Hoar, sitting in a hospital bed with a metal “halo” around his head to prevent movement that could hinder his recovery.
Early one Sunday morning last month, Eric and his wife, Najla, were driving back to their Maryland home after a late night out. Najla was the designated driver and had not been drinking, but she was exhausted and struggled to stay awake behind the wheel.
Just minutes from home, she fell asleep at the wheel as their truck barreled along at 60 miles per hour. They crashed head-on into a tree.
Najla was wearing her seatbelt, but Eric was not. The impact sent Eric’s head smashing against the windshield. Conscious throughout the accident, he immediately knew that he couldn’t feel his legs, Najla recalled.
The couple was rushed to a nearby hospital, where doctors discovered that Eric had broken his spine and did not have any feeling below his waist or in his hands.
His progress has been slow but steady, said Eric’s best friend and fellow Capitol Police officer Ken Shaver, who has been with him nearly every day since the accident.
Shaver is serving as a liaison from the police department. It’s a natural role for Shaver, who went to preschool with Eric, was baptized with him and served as best man at his wedding.
“I know he’d be here doing it for me,” said Shaver, standing by Eric’s hospital bedside. “We’re as close as friends as anyone can have.”
As soon as Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse discovered the closeness of the two men, he gave Shaver administrative leave for the rest of the week to be with Eric.
Eric was recently moved from the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where his care originated, to the National Rehabilitation Hospital. Last week he began daily, seven-hour-long physical therapy sessions. He has already made major progress, said Shaver, who goes to the therapy with him.
Late last week, Hoar regained some feeling in his hands and had a tingling sensation in his legs — signs that some mobility could be restored. He has near full movement in his shoulders and was introduced to his motorized chair last Wednesday. His therapists said they had never seen someone learn how to use it so quickly, Najla said.
“Every day seems like there’s some sort of milestone,” Eric said. “First there was getting the breathing tube out of my throat so I can talk, and then the feeding tube out of my nose, and then you’re breathing on your own. And now I’m eating solid foods. Next is getting this [tracheotomy tube] out.”
Eric said he has drawn motivation from the constant outpouring of support from friends, family and Capitol Hill.
Capitol Police has allowed Shaver flexibility with his work schedule so that he can be with Eric as much as possible. Within days of the accident, fellow Capitol Police officers put together a giant box of DVDs, CDs, a deck of playing cards and $500 in cash.
A retired officer helped Najla set up a House Credit Union account so that people can make donations to help cover the medical and recovery costs, which are quickly racking up.
Since the accident, Eric has used his accumulated leave time to receive full pay. When that runs out, officers can donate their leave time to him. And a full-time civilian employee in the Capitol Police’s human resources division has been dedicated to helping the Hoars with questions about his salary and leave pay, as well as the insurance paperwork.
“We do everything we can to keep the burden off the family,” Morse said.
The National Fraternal Order of Police, which counts Eric among its members, is planning a donation drive for him during next month’s Police Week, when thousands of cops flood Capitol Hill.
Najla set up a website, www.caringbridge.org/visit/erichoar, which has gotten nearly 8,000 hits in the month it has been up and has garnered hundreds of well-wishing comments from family and friends, including Senate Sergeant at Arms Terry Gainer.
Members of Congress have reached out as well.
Both House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) have called to offer their help.
“Special Agent Hoar is a tremendous asset to the Capitol Police force, and he and his family are in my thoughts and prayers,” Hoyer said in a statement to The Hill.
After the calls, Najla — noting the bipartisan support — joked, “You’re going to bring the country together.”
“The support’s just been amazing,” Eric said.
Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) hadn’t heard of Eric’s accident, but when informed, the congressman — who was himself paralyzed from the waist down after an accident 30 years ago — asked The Hill to give Eric the phone number of the renowned doctor who worked with actor Christopher Reeve after his paralyzing accident.
“There’s life after a spinal-cord injury,” Langevin said in an interview in the Speaker’s Lobby. “And there’s never a good time to have a spinal-cord injury, but there’s much more hope now than when I had my injury. Now it’s more a question of when, and not if, there’s a cure for spinal-cord injuries.”
The first days after the accident were the hardest.
Eric couldn’t talk and couldn’t move his hands to write. His family and Shaver used a letter chart and would move their fingers down the rows of letters until Eric blinked, signaling that was the correct row. Then they would go through each letter in that row until he blinked again. Using this method they would spell out words and phrases he wanted to say, such as “Turn the fan on.”
Later, Eric told Shaver through this eye-blink communication that he wanted to give Najla some flowers and a full day at the spa for their first wedding anniversary — which happened to fall exactly one week after the accident. The couple had planned to go to Aruba.
Friends have been lending endless support, too, cooking meals for Najla and cleaning their house. One of Najla’s co-workers even offered the couple the use of her one-level house because the Hoars’ two-story home will make movement for Eric difficult.
His support system has also come to him. On Sunday, nearly 50 of Eric’s friends and family gathered in the hospital’s cafeteria to celebrate his birthday.
After they sang to him, Eric dug into a slice of each kind of cake: chocolate with peanut butter frosting, and ice cream cake topped with sliced Ho Hos.
For a moment, Eric and his family and friends let the celebration eclipse the nearly fatal accident and the challenges that lie ahead.
With a photo album of Eric’s youth on a cafeteria table nearby, Eric’s father, Dennis Hoar, looked proudly at his son.
“He’s been smiling all day,” he said.