In his own words, Brian Hottinger was broken…severely broken.
On a beautiful September day, the chief of the Washington C.H. Police Department had his life altered in a devastating way. After participating in a Chamber of Commerce golf outing at Buckeye Hills, Hottinger lost control of his 1995 Jeep Wrangler westbound on Greenfield-Sabina Road just before 5 p.m. Sept. 6. The Jeep left the roadway to the right, struck a ditch, struck a fence and then struck two trees.
Hottinger, who was not wearing his seat belt, was ejected from the vehicle when it struck the ditch, according to reports.
“I remember leaving the golf tournament in my little Jeep Wrangler with no doors, no top,” Hottinger said in a recent interview with the Record-Herald. “I always wear my seat belt religiously, and if I don’t have it on when I leave, I always notice shortly down the road and I stick it on. I had that Jeep for 15 years. In fact, my wife and I had decided we were going to sell it. So I drove it to the golf outing that day thinking that it was the last time I’ll drive this Jeep. Let’s go and have a little fun on this nice summer day.”
What was a nice summer day quickly turned into a nightmare for Hottinger and his family. Hottinger was flown by medical helicopter to Grant Medical Center in Columbus following the accident. He said he has no recollection of the accident and only remembers bits and pieces from the immediate aftermath.
“I’ve thought about it a lot. My wife and I have gone back down there and looked at the scene, but I still don’t know exactly what happened. We went there probably four or five weeks after the accident and some of the evidence was still on the roadway. I also looked at the photographs from the sheriff’s office,” he said. “The only thing we came to theorize was that I may have noticed that I didn’t have my seat belt on after leaving the golf course, and that I tried to put it on while I was driving. If was looking down and to the right, that would make you fade to the right and off the road.”
“I remember leaving the golf outing, stopping at a stop sign behind a white truck just up from the golf course,” Hottinger continued. “He turned left on Greenfield-Sabina Road. I turned left on Greenfield-Sabina Road. Then less than a quarter-mile down the road, I wrecked. In the photos you can see where the vehicle left the roadway and pressed down on the grass. Still on the roadway you can see where my tires scuffed the pavement. You can see a mark on the road from where I over-corrected a second time. You can see where I exited the road, hit the ditch, shot straight up in the air, cleared a four-foot fence, hit the pine tree….all that was still there.”
From looking at the photos of the accident, Hottinger was able to ascertain that his body came to rest over a hundred feet from where the vehicle left the roadway. Essentially, he flew through the air, bounced and rolled for over 100 feet.
Hottinger was knocked unconscious and only remembers glimpses during his trip to Grant.
“I remember the life squad being there and trying to put me on a backboard and putting a cervical collar on my neck,” said Hottinger. “I remember that it hurt and being loaded into the helicopter. I had no idea what was going on. Apparently when they first found me I was unconscious and had a pretty good gash on my head and blood running down my face. I had tried to fight them…I tried to get up but couldn’t because my back was broken.”
‘This put me down’
Hottinger was fortunate to survive the accident. He broke six vertebrates and four ribs, dislocated his right shoulder and scratched the cornea of his left eye. He spent five days in the trauma unit at Grant.
“They reset my shoulder, which later I had to have surgery on. They stabilized me, did a lot of x-rays and cat scans. They basically had to teach me to get out of bed because of the broken vertebrae,” Hottinger said. “The physical therapist came in the morning after the accident and said, ‘I need you to get out of bed and walk to that door.’ I’m thinking, ‘That’s not happening.’ He stood there and kept poking at me and kept poking at me….he made me get up. He had to teach me how to roll over with broken ribs and a broken back with one arm because the other arm was tied down to me. He had to teach me to get out of bed and stand up. It was everything I had in me to do those things. I only had to walk 10 feet, but it took everything I had to do it.”
Hottinger’s frustration could be heard echoing through the trauma unit, his wife, Laura, told him. He would then apologize to the physical therapist.
“He said it was okay because they get it all the time,” Hottinger said. “They deal with people who are severely broken. I was severely broken. Never in my life had I experienced anything like this. I was always able to push through it, ignore the pain, muscle through it. Just deal with it and move on. Not this. This put me down.”
The long road back
For his back, doctors tried injections to relieve the pressure, but they didn’t make much difference.
“The sciatic nerve would just go absolutely crazy all the way down to my foot,” he said. “I couldn’t move, couldn’t walk 20 feet without just agonizing pain. The injections, the different medications….didn’t really work. Nothing was helping. My spinal cord came down and did this little S-curve thing….it’s supposed to be straight obviously.”
If that wasn’t enough, Hottinger had a massive tear in his rotator cuff and labrum. He met with Dr. Tim Kremchek with Beacon Orthopedics in Cincinnati, who performed an x-ray and MRI. Within 15 minutes of meeting the doctor, he said Hottinger could do nothing and the injury would never heal, or he could have surgery.
“So I said, ‘Okay, fix it.’ It was on November 7th, I think, when Dr. Kremchek did the two-hour surgery,” said Hottinger. “I have movement back, but not all of it. I’ll be doing physical therapy on my shoulder probably until April or May. The physical therapy started the day after surgery. That’s some painful stuff. I’m still doing that twice a week plus doing it at home.”
However, this was not the final surgery for Hottinger. On New Year’s Eve, he underwent a four-hour surgery on his back at Christ Hospital through Beacon Orthopedics.
“Normally, you would have months between two major surgeries, but we packed two major surgeries in seven weeks’ time,” he said. “They said that was as close as they would put them together. We did the surgery and the vertebrae were pulled back. He fixed it up level with the cadaver bone, and put in cobalt chromium screws and rod in my back and fused them together. The leg pain is gone and now my spine is straight where it’s supposed to be.”
A big thank you
Hottinger was effusive with his praise of the medical staff he dealt with during his time of need. He also thanked the people of Washington Court House and Fayette County community for their visits, prayers, phone calls, texts, cards, etc.
“Every doctor, every nurse, every administrator through Beacon, Christ Hospital, Grant Hospital, have all been awesome people,” he said. “The outpouring of concern….the people who cared and were genuinely concerned about how I was doing. It was just unbelievable and very humbling. When I was first Lifelighted, my wife kept a list of a whole bunch of people who came to see me. My wife would go to work and people would see her in town and constantly ask how I was doing. It just means a lot that there was that much concern. I also can’t thank my wife enough for basically doing everything for me and putting up with me during this time.”
Hottinger also gave tribute to his officers at the police department for the outstanding work they did in his absence, and the people who work in the City of Washington Court House.
“I didn’t leave the house for a long time, I just kind of puttered around the house because I couldn’t move very well,” Hottinger said. “I don’t do very well staying at home and being away from work. My wife and (city manager) Joe Denen told me the day after the accident when I was in the hospital, I was saying, ‘I have to go to work. I have a budget I have to get ready for 2020. I have things I have to do. This is not in my plan.’ But Joe and others in the city told me to take as much time as I needed and not to worry.
“Lieutenant (Russell) Lowe and Lieutenant (Jeff) Funari, they had to step up and basically do my job for the past five months. I threw them a curve-ball and they stepped up big time. We would still talk when I could and when my wife would bring me into the office before it wore me out, but they did an awesome job stepping up. I do things at the department that no one else knows about and they got thrown into the mix. In fact, the whole department stepped up and did a wonderful job and did things they don’t normally do. All because I decided to make the mistake of not wearing a seat belt.”
Hottinger added that he owns the mistake of not wearing a seat belt and deeply regrets it. He was cited for failure to wear a seat belt and for failure to maintain control of a motor vehicle. He pled guilty to both and both citations were paid.
“It’s a lesson that I learned the hard way and it should serve as an example as to what can happen in just a split second,” he said. “It could have easily killed me. If I was two feet to the left, I would have bounced down the roadway, and I’m sure my damage would’ve been much worse or fatal. I could’ve been paralyzed, I could’ve suffered a head injury that gave me brain damage. There are so many bad possible outcomes. But I can still walk, I have the capability to use my brain, I can function and everything works. I consider myself very fortunate.”
Responding to criticism
In response to some of the criticism he received on social media following the accident, Hottinger said, “There were lots of things being said about me and about the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office as to why an alcohol test was not run on me because I left a golf tournament. I had been on a nerve medication to calm my nerve for my leg since early July. I was not permitted to consume any alcohol because of that particular medication. However, there were certain people who threw negative statements out about me and accusations about me and about the sheriff’s office. There was no alcohol in my system, I hadn’t had any since early July.”
Hottinger showed the Record-Herald a screen shot of his medical chart that showed an alcohol test was done the day of the accident. It shows an alcohol content of zero.
Hottinger returns with new outlook
Following a long, arduous road back, Hottinger returned to the police department on Jan. 27 and began by working half-days.
“I am humbled that anyone is interested in me being back at work,” he said. “I started with three or four hours a day, and then I immediately went home and took a nap because it wore me out. Now, I’m doing my eight hours a day. I’m not in uniform currently because I’m not capable of putting that on and maintaining it right now because of my injuries. But I’m here. I’m also humbled by the reception I received from the members of the department. I missed this place, I missed the people in it.”
For Hottinger, his accident and the struggles he had to endure to make it back to the job he loves have given him a different outlook on life.
“I look at things a lot different now than I did a year ago,” he said. “Some of those things that you don’t think about or consider much, I pay attention to those now. I appreciate them. I wasn’t able to drive for almost two-and-a-half months, but the first time I was allowed to drive, I just drove slowly down a country road and enjoyed the drive. I felt like a 16-year-old kid and my first time behind the wheel. There are so many things in life that you don’t think about and just overlook. I haven’t changed my views on everything, it’s not like I had some sort of epiphany. But if I took anything out of this, it’s don’t sweat the small stuff in life. It could be a lot worse. That’s a reality that can set in real quick. Things can change so fast and you have no control. None.”
Making the most of his time
Hottinger, who has been police chief for 16 years, only has 14 months left at the department he loves so dearly. At that point, he has to retire due to the deferred retirement option program he’s entered into. His goal currently is to finish his physical therapy and become fully healthy by springtime. Even then, he will most likely have restrictions until the end of this year.
“Leaving this place will be bittersweet,” he said. “I want to stay, but at the same time I’ve been doing this for a long time and it’s probably time for someone else to do it. When I retire I need to step away and give the new chief the ability to spread his wings and take control. My options are open after this. I have no idea what I’m going to do, but I’m not ready to sit on my front porch and rock my life away.”
Feeling like he has a second lease on life, Hottinger plans to make the most of it.
“Being back here at this department, this is who I am. We have a really good group of men and women who work in here and we’re working for a good city with good people. I would stack this department against any department of comparable size anywhere as far as our knowledge, our ability and our willingness to go out and help people,” he said. “I’m humbled to be a part of this. I only have 14 months left. I’m going to make the most out of those 14 months. You can rest assured, I’m going to make the most of it.”
Reach Ryan Carter at 740-313-0352.