When Tom Wagstaff returned home to a hero's welcome last December in Independence – more than eight months after he was critically wounded in the line of police duty – he said what he most looked forward to was getting back to being a husband to his wife Stacy and a father to their two teenage sons, Jordan and Alex.
While navigating the changes with that, compared with before that fateful March 29, 2017 day, Wagstaff has continued to forge through rehabilitation from an injury that came within less than an inch of killing him and literally is embedded in him.
Whereas before at this time of year he might get home after his patrol shift with Independence Police and put on a baseball glove, any activity now is from a wheelchair or standing with a walker.
“I can't play catch with my sons,” he said. “I can still be a part of their lives; it's just been a change.”
“My youngest, his baseball season is coming up, I can't go out and practice with him like I used to be able to. Everything has to be planned out; we can't just get up and go. I still try to take my son up to an indoor facility and help him with his fielding or hitting, even though I'm stuck in a wheelchair. I can still throw the ball to him.”
They have more game nights as a family, and Tom recently started playing some acoustic guitar while Alex plays the saxophone.
That Tom can do that – and that he and Stacy can sit in their living room and recount those days a year ago, laughing about Tom's absurd request for protection for his room at the rehabilitation facility in Nebraska – is a miracle, they believe.
“When they finally told me, I was kind of amazed that I was still alive,” he said. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute: I got shot in the head and I'm still alive?’”
‘Decided to let us know’
On a Wednesday, Wagstaff was shot when he and other officers responded to a home burglary and kidnapping call on Delaware Avenue. Two men stole the homeowner's vehicle and burst through the garage trying to escape and two sides exchanged gunfire.
Those men, and two others who drove them to the neighborhood, were soon arrested and charged, and the homeowner suffered relatively minor injuries and was safe. (All four await trials this year.)
But Wagstaff was in dire condition after being rushed to Centerpoint Medical Center and undergoing emergency surgery.
Doctors had even told Stacy to be prepared that Tom wouldn't make it. Tuesday after the accident, while Stacy got some much-needed rest at a hotel and Tom’s sister held vigil, he opened his eyes for the first time.
“He decided to let us know he wanted to fight,” as Stacy puts it. “His sister was actually the one (who saw it). We came in and she was white as a ghost and she's like, 'You're not going to believe this. He's blinking.'”
“It was a holy crap moment for everyone,” IPD officer John Syme said, remembering that Stacy looked like “a kid on Christmas” at the hospital.
Doctors initially feared a bullet fragment had nicked a sinus in Wagstaff's head, which could've proved fatal, and tests on Saturday weren't conclusive due to swelling in his head. When the swelling subsided, tests on Tuesday showed the good news. The bullet wasn't fatal, and his brain had been receiving oxygen.
“If it was a quarter-inch different, he would have bled out,” Stacy said.
Instead, Wagstaff soon improved enough to be transferred to Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital (and later another rehab facility) in Nebraska. In Madonna is where he first remembers waking up. Before that, the most recent memory was roll call the morning of his accident.
“I did not know what had happened, I had this sense of 'Where am I at and what am I doing here?” he said. “I knew I was shot, and I wasn't 100 percent sure the suspects were in custody. I woke up, I thought was sleeping on the floor.”
Stacy said they had spoon-fed him news, to avoid Tom becoming too anxious or worried. At the time, he was also heavily medicated and naturally lacked full awareness. Still, Tom asked Stacy to call a couple friends and bring the big gun safe.
“Bring it up here; put it in front of the door,” Stacy said, recalling her husband's request.
“What are we going to do when the doctors and nurses need to come in?”
“Well, you're just gonna move it!”
“One woman here!” she said, laughing. “That was literally when I walked out and said, 'OK, we've got to tell him.'”
Armed with knowledge of his brush with death, Wagstaff set about regaining his life bit by bit. He progressed to solid food quickly, worked to regain muscle tone and limb movement. Sitting up straight and then reaching without losing balance took months.
“I'd always fall to one side,” he said. “I had to relearn everything.”
Eventually, he received the go-ahead to return home, where a newly outfitted house awaited. On Dec. 8, Independence Police and many other law enforcement agencies provided a motorcade to Independence, rolling past crowds gathered along the streets. The next day was a public celebration at a local church, where honors and gratitude abounded.
Tom said he been shown pictures and told stories of the community support back home,including the “Wagstrong” hashtag, but it took actually coming home to realize the full scope.
“Seeing it for myself, that's when I went, 'Holy cow, people actually care, I can't believe it. I felt vindicated, being able to come back and see it for myself, the community support and outpouring.”
Stacy said they had plenty of support from family and friends to allow her and her sons to regain and maintain some normalcy. She went back to her elementary art teacher job this year, and Jordan was wrestled this winter.
But all the prayers, signs, fundraiser support and just positive vibes from complete strangers all around astounded them, and continues to do so.
“I can't fathom it, and I've lived through it,” Stacy said. “To see the outpouring of support from everyone and everywhere is absolutely incredible.”
“I'll take all the prayers I can get,” Tom said. “I appreciate everyone's support.”
Wagstaff knows he can never be a police officer in the field again, and a desk job still would take some work as he regains his full cognitive skills. But he still keeps in touch with his IPD friends – to remain a part of that community and family.
His biggest goal now is to walk again, no matter how little at first.
“I don't care if it's with a walker or a cane,” he said. “If I do that, then I know I can start walking on my own independently.”
“My new hobby is, I think of babies and how they learn to walk,” he said, joking that he wouldn't have much farther to fall because he's naturally short. “I kind of picture an infant getting up and trying to balance and then taking a step and then falling down on their butt.”
“If they can learn how to walk, I can learn how to walk. I've just got to movements down, my limbs under control.”
Stacy and Tom met as college freshmen, and they dated five years before getting married. Only after that did Tom reveal his desire to become a police officer, reassuring her of the safety training and very small odds of being seriously hurt.
“I had to wait until I knew she couldn't leave,” he said, laughing with her as they recount the story of his news that ideally could've been delivered sooner.
“It's the only thing I can do,” she said.
Wagstaff also has grown comfortable with the semi-celebrity status built by his injury and subsequent recovery
“I've kind've gotten used to it by now,” he said. “I almost have a little script that I go through in my head (for TV news interviews).
“People will see me and say, 'Aren't you that officer?' 'Yes, I am.'”
“We can't go anywhere without people asking, 'Officer, can I shake your hand?' Stacy said.
“There's not many times when people can say they've witnessed a real miracle.”