By Denise J. Dubé
I, Peter, do solemnly affirm that I will bear true faith and allegiance to and will uphold and defend the constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all duties on me as a police officer.
Carrying a borrowed chief’s cap and a shirt that bore the Bedford Police Department’s patch, Peter Wyskoczka walked toward the Mudge Way station entrance. He was already wearing the department’s pants and a white undershirt. Five minutes before noon, he’d don the crisp short-sleeve matching top.
He wasn’t nervous or scared and had been waiting for this moment since forever. His late father was a law enforcement officer for Waltham and later a lieutenant in the Washington, D.C. department. His uncle was also a police officer, and his brother-in-law is now a proud member of the North Andover department. These are the people Peter idolizes. Had his life been different, it is almost certain that he’d be in a squad car somewhere.
A smiling sergeant greeted Peter and held the door open, his stepfather Jim, and me. We followed him to a large room, set up with rows of chairs and a podium, its front adorned with a larger version of the department’s insignia.
Officers from the department trickled in, each shaking Peter’s hand and wishing him luck. Chief Robert Bongiorno entered, walked toward Peter with an enormous smile. He too offered his hand. The two traded an overly strong handshake, one the chief is probably still rubbing his palm over.
Since leaving rehab, handshakes are Peter’s favorite exercise. Physical therapy workers remarked on how strong it was, so everyone – willing or not – becomes a practice session.
Intensive Care ~ A Detour on Peter’s Path
Born in November 1973, Peter has Trisomy 21, better known as Down syndrome. Prone to pneumonia throughout his life, during November and late December of 2017 he hadn’t felt particularly well. I’d already taken him to two doctors who simultaneously offered six weeks of antibiotics.
The cough continued. On Jan. 30, 2018 he was rushed from his Arlington group home to the emergency room with, we’d later learn, that flu the preventative shot didn’t touch. Three people had already died from this deadly and fast-moving virus. He was septic, his liver and kidneys were failing and, due to lack of oxygen, he had an ischemic heart attack in the ER. He was intubated, given a central line and somewhat stabilized before finally making it to Lahey’s Medical Intensive Care Unit, although no one knows how. Doctors repeatedly said, “He is the sickest person in this unit,” and they didn’t expect him to live.
If Peter survived, which was unlikely, we could expect, at best, 80 percent of his former self. This became a daily mantra along with advice that we should give him comfort care and just let him go.
The kid is a fighter, and despite daily crashes whenever he was slightly moved or when doctors tried innovative new procedures, he continued to hang on. He would slightly improve and then regress.
Twenty or more days into our vigil, two doctors urged us not to give up. We opted for a tracheotomy. It was performed five days later and, surprisingly, Peter began to ever so slightly improve. The Saturday after the tracheotomy was done a nurse accidentally knocked the air supply off the trach and he began breathing on his own. He went two hours that first day and the next.
He was shipped out to a Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital with the proviso: “Don’t worry, you can always bring him back for comfort care.”
The doctors at rehab saw it differently and began urging him to work. After sleeping for 30 days, he had no muscle tone and could barely raise his hand. He had no plans to, either.
We almost lost him, so we’d hoped he’d come home full time and whispered that to him. Big mistake and not his plan. With the nurse’s assistance and a temporary tracheotomy cap he, speaking in a staccato raspy monotone, said he wanted his friends and his group home life in Arlington. He also wanted iced decaffeinated coffee. One must have priorities.
With the lure of seeing his five housemates and iced decaf, he began weeks and weeks of exercise. On March 30 he hobbled back to life – with me by his side at the group home and on weekends at home in Lexington, on the Bedford border, with Jim and me.
Since then, Peter’s had two more bouts of pneumonia, another brief overnight hospital visit, a broken foot, and frequent visits to the doctor. It’s our new normal.
“Can I be a cop?”
A few months later, when life was somewhat calmer (it’s relative), we were driving, probably to Dunkin Donuts. While sitting in the back seat as we drove down The Great Road, Peter asked, “Can I be a cop?”
A promise to try was given. Having covered police for newspapers, I knew officers had big hearts. Who was still a chief that I knew and was brave enough to ask? Over the next few months, he’d continue to ask. Peter’s request, always made so quietly and earnestly, could not be denied.
Life has a way of handing out miracles and dreams when you least expect.
At the end of a telephone conversation with Chief Bongiorno, I asked if Peter’s request was something he might consider. Yes, the Chief answered immediately, “Let’s make this happen.”
I let it go about a week, figuring I’d let him off the hook. I had no idea Sgt. Jeffrey Wardwell and Officer Kristen Dineen worked with Peter’s alma mater, the LABBB Collaborative (Lexington, Arlington, Bedford, Burlington, Belmont) which serves students, all with special needs and abilities. The BPD was no stranger to our community’s needs.
The chief was serious; he called a week later and again, he stated his commitment. He’d ask Officer Dineen to organize the event. What size was Peter? The department would, he said, provide a uniform.
A week later a uniform was in the reception area of the police station. That night we told Peter that the Bedford Police Chief was going to make him an officer for a day. “When?” he asked.
The pants didn’t fit, so we planned on buying him a pair. Officer Dineen insisted they would scour the department and find the right size. Meanwhile, Peter kept asking, “When?”
Detective Marc Saucier donated a pair of his, and I was given permission to shorten them to fit Peter’s five-foot frame.
Phone calls and texts with Officer Dineen detailed how long a day Peter could handle, that the chief would swear him in and what they might do during his time on the force. Again, we heard, “When?”
Peter gets tired after standing on his feet for more than a few hours, so we limited the day. He’d do as much as he could, Officer Dineen said. It was apparent the chief and Officer Dineen seemed just as excited as Peter, Jim and me.
Becoming an Honorary Bedford Police Officer
On June 6 at 11:45 am we made that walk toward the Bedford Police Station, Peter’s gear in hand.
Police officers have an enormous capacity to embrace life despite their daily duties. They bear witness to deadly car accidents, domestic beefs, raccoon roadkill, drug use gone wrong, suspicious packages, and everything else you can, and cannot, imagine.
The joy in their faces matched my son’s. Dressed in his blues, minus a badge, he walked around the room talking, smiling, bowing and making his uniquely-crafted Qi Gong hand gesture.
“Let’s get started,” the chief said at noon. His remarks and kindness pierced my heart, and Peter, uncharacteristically, listened intently. (You can view the ceremony on Facebook by searching for “Bedford Massachusetts Police” and scrolling to the video.).
I don’t have much memory of what I said after the chief spoke. I just recall my son solemnly anticipating what was to come, and telling me, by my first name, not to embarrass him.
Holding the oath in his hand, the chief asked Peter to repeat the words after him. I have watched the video no less than 50 times and am blown away with how well Peter repeated the italicized promise that leads this story. The seriousness of the oath wasn’t lost on him.
An honorary shield was given to me and, with the Chief’s help, I pinned it onto Peter’s chest, with admonitions from a few officers to make sure I hit cloth and not him. Levity, in any situation, is also a hallmark of great officers. Peter was with the right crowd. He brings humor to any and every situation.
Eventually, I managed to clip it onto his shirt, directly below the permanent and always visible life-saving tracheotomy scar.
When asked by the chief if he had anything he’d like to say, his response was immediate. “Thanks.” Short, sweet, and heartfelt.
Before spending the next two hours sitting beside Sgt. Wardwell in a police cruiser Peter, now an honorary member of the BPD, sat in the conference room and relaxed. Officer Dineen had a table with his favorite foods –iced decaf coffee and Boston crème donuts. Some generous officer gave Peter a real hat (retired), and he gave back the chief’s.
After a crème filled delicacy and further congratulations, Sgt. Wardwell said it was time to work. Peter and the sergeant headed for the patrol car.
Thinking he might need support I headed for the back door of his cruiser. Nope, I was sent to Officer Jeffrey French’s at Peter’s insistence.
Peter’s first stop was at his daily workshop on Hartwell Avenue. His coworkers were out on jobs, but the staff was there and took pictures with him in his uniform and badge. Peter’s grin said it all, but I was surprised at the pride on the other officers’ faces.
From there Sgt. Wardwell headed for a stop sign in an out-of-the-way parking lot. There, they might catch someone slipping over the thick white line without stopping. Officer Jeffrey French was parked a few hundred feet away, watching to make sure no other cars were around.
Officer Tim Pike, riding in his black pickup and dressed in regular clothing, slipped past the marker and Sgt. Wardwell hit the lights and siren.
The pickup parked and Sgt. Wardwell and Peter exited the cruiser and headed toward the side of the car. “Ask him for his license and registration?” Wardwell urged Peter.
He asked, but when they asked him to exit the car Peter would not handcuff him. We’d learn later, Peter did not want him arrested and felt bad for him. He later confessed he was a bit anxious about that. At the station, Peter’s empathy took Pike out of the cuffs and back into free life. (Wonder who gave him a ride back to his truck?)
Once the prisoner was released Peter, Officer Dineen and a few others sat in the conference room and enjoyed another donut before heading home.
Although his hat and a plaque are on a shelf and his uniform is on a hanger, he’s now “Officer Pete,” at home, at the group home, and at his workshop.