Nearly killed by DUI suspect, Orange police officer is humbled by outpouring of support
The police officer inched down the hospital hallway as he strained to hold himself up in a walker, his breathing becoming more labored as the pain in his left leg worsened.
“About a seven or eight,” Orange PD Officer Sharif Muzayen said of the agony, 10 being excruciating.
A physical therapist accompanied Muzayen during the total trek of about 200 feet.
She guided machines on wheels that, through tubes, fed pain medication and antibiotics into a patchwork of covered wounds on Muzayen’s mangled and swollen left leg, while other tubes sucked out excess fluids and bad stuff.
For Muzayen, a 32-year-old former Marine with a wife and two young children, the short walk Thursday afternoon, Dec. 29, was huge progress — and a reason to savor the simple pleasures in life, like the deli sub a colleague at the Orange PD brought him shortly after his brief walk.
“I got hit by a car,” Muzayen said. “I could be dead. I was really close to being dead. But I’m still here. And I still have my leg.”
If three fellow officers had not been with Muzayen on a routine call around 3 a.m. on Dec. 10, the officer known by some as “Moose” around the station — a play off his last name and stocky frame — most likely would have bled out within minutes.
He likely would have died after a car smashed into him as he stood behind his patrol vehicle, OPD officials said.
The collision — caused by a suspected drunken driver from Tustin, 27-year-old Ashley Victoria Bertolino, who has been charged and faces up to six years in prison if convicted — completely severed Muzayen’s femoral artery, the main supplier of blood to the lower limb.
The impact snapped Muzayen’s femoral artery like a rubber band at the top of the hip, sending it disappearing up into his body. And it crushed bones below his knee.
Quick thinking — and a tourniquet — saved Muzayen’s life, OPD officials said.
Two officers and a sergeant applied the tourniquet before Orange Fire Department personnel arrived and sped Muzayen to the hospital.
There, Muzayen underwent emergency surgery.
ER surgeons had to reconstruct his shattered femoral artery quickly or tissue in his left leg would have died and he would have lost his limb. They performed the bypass using an artery from a cow.
Muzayen also had a huge bump on his forehead and a small hematoma — bleeding — in his head.
At first, doctors questioned whether he would live.
Then they doubted he would keep his leg.
Muzayen spent three days in a medically induced coma before awaking to the sight of his wife, Vanessa.
Still dazed, but recognizing his wife of five years, he pointed a finger to his lips and she kissed him.
“The only explanation is that God was watching over him,” Vanessa said Wednesday at the Orange PD. A cold prevented her from visiting her husband in the hospital.
Since the harrowing collision in the 500 block of North Cambridge Street just hours before his Saturday night graveyard shift was to end, Muzayen has had a near-constant stream of visitors from his brothers and sisters in law enforcement and the fire service.
Ten Anaheim PD officers, from the gang and homicide units, surprised him Thursday, Dec. 29 with $2,000 and kind words.
“We want you to know our family is your family,” APD Inv. Jason Smith told Muzayen. “We’re praying for you and we love you.”
Muzayen, propped up in a chair, choked up.
“I appreciate every one of you,” he told the visiting officers. “Just your presence makes a huge difference.”
Muzayen, whose head CT scans turned out negative, faces a long road to recovery.
Colleagues admire his tenacity and positive spirit.
“He’s got the warrior mindset,” Orange PD Lt. Mike Monjaraz said while visiting Muzayen in his hospital room Thursday.
THE SMELL OF DESTRUCTION
Muzayen, who was born in Colorado but from age 5 to 24 lived with his family in Berlin, Germany, remembers bits and pieces of Dec. 10.
Up until 3 a.m., his patrol shift had been routine.
He rolled to the scene of a man sleeping in a truck that was partially blocking a resident’s driveway. The two officers and sergeant called for backup to determine if the man in the car had been drinking or taking drugs.
Ever since Muzayen joined the OPD in January 2014, he’s had a passion for arresting drunk drivers.
One of his best friends in the Marines, a machine-gunner who served with Muzayen during his second tour to Afghanistan in 2012, killed three people last year in Florida after driving drunk.
Muzayen’s friend had taken to heavy drinking after seeing combat, along with Muzayen, in Sangin, Afghanistan, during their seven-month deployment in which nine of their fellow Marines died and 30-some were wounded.
At the 3 a.m. scene on Dec. 10, the four OPD officers decided to summon an Uber driver to take the suspect home and have his car towed.
Muzayen had just collected paperwork from the trunk of his car when Bertolino, driving a Hyundai, slammed into him. Police estimate she had been driving between 40 and 50 mph.
“I smelled the collision,” Muzayen recalled. “I didn’t feel it or see it or see (the driver). But I smelled it. It’s a distinct smell, burned plastic and certain motor fluids. I was standing there thinking, ‘What’s going on?’
“The next thing I know I’m lying on my back. And I remember thinking, ‘What happened?’”
The sergeant bent over Muzayen.
“Don’t move,” he told him. “Everything’s going to be alright.”
An officer also kept him calm.
“Hey man,” he told Muzayen, “you got hit by a car. We’ll fix you up. You’re going to be OK. You’re going to be alright.”
The officers started to apply the tourniquet to Muzayen’s grievously wounded left leg.
While in the Marines, Muzayen, an MP (military policeman), also had been instructed as a combat lifesaver and was very familiar with tourniquets.
“Harder, turn it harder,” he told his OPD colleagues. “Put it higher. Get it all the way up. Tie it as hard as you can.”
Muzayen recalled seeing the fire engines roll up and the paramedics working on him and being transported to the hospital.
Inside the unit, the firefighters asked Muzayen about his plans for Christmas.
Muzayen told them he was going to take his wife and kids to Disneyland.
Realizing the irony of what just happened, Muzayen then said: “Two tours to Afghanistan didn’t take my leg or kill me, and now this.”
Shortly after that, he passed out.
OUTPOURING OF SUPPORT
The Orange PD sent two officers to rush Vanessa Muzayen from her home to the hospital. A relative came over to watch their two children, Luke, 8, and Leia, 2.
Yes, the two are “Star Wars” freaks.
They met on a blind date in late 2010 at a Marine Corps Ball, and were married on Dec. 2, 2011 between Muzayen’s two deployments to Afghanistan.
This year, on Monday, Dec. 11, Sharif and Vanessa were planning to go out to dinner for a belated five-year anniversary.
And a freshly cut Christmas tree was waiting in their front yard for Muzayen to take into the house after his Dec. 10 shift ended.
Now, Vanessa Muzayen, 32, who grew up in Orange, found herself in a hospital.
She had been told her husband had broken his leg. The full gravity of his condition soon became clear to her.
“I always had worried for his safety, both as a Marine and as a police officer,” Vanessa said, “but I thought if he ever was going to be hurt, I feared he would get shot because of how much hostility there is out there now toward officers.”
Vanessa was worried, but mostly kept up a strong front.
“She’s a Marine wife,” said OPD Sgt. Phil McMullin, who was waiting at the hospital to greet her — and has been by the family’s side ever since.
Officers, including OPD Chief of Police Tom Kisela, soon began showing up in droves at the hospital.
“It was a huge deal,” McMullin said. “We haven’t had an incident this serious since 1997.”
That’s when a man wielding an assault rifle killed five people and wounded two, including an OPD officer, after opening fire at a Caltrans maintenance yard in the worst outbreak of workplace violence in more than two decades in Orange County.
Word about Muzayen travelled quickly among the OPD’s nearly 150 sworn officers and PD personnel from surrounding agencies and beyond.
“This has brought our police department together,” McMullin said. “Everyone is asking, ‘What can we do, what can we do?’”
Muzayen spent more than a week in the Intensive Care Unit before being transferred to the surgery floor, where he is limited to seeing his children only periodically, and only for 15 minutes.
Leia, whose first name is Lorelai but whose middle name comes from the “Star Wars” princess played by Carrie Fisher, is taking her father’s absence particularly hard.
“He works nights, so during the day when he is sleeping she lies against him,” Vanessa said. “She is with him all the time. Normally she is easygoing and happy, but now she’s crying a lot.”
A COSTLY DECISION
Despite being off duty for four months in 2016 due to an injury, Muzayen last year has made 25 DUI arrests — among the tops at the Orange PD.
He isn’t bitter at the driver who nearly killed him.
“She now has to face the aftermath of her decision,” Muzayen said. “It’s not that I hate her, but I would like to see her be punished to the fullest extent, just like every person I arrest for DUI.
“She needs to understand the cost of what she did. Drunk drivers, they all make a conscious decision to drive to a bar with their own car, knowing that most likely no matter how drunk they get, they’re not going to leave their car behind but are going to drive back home.”
Muzayen said the driver who struck him should have planned ahead.
“It would have been an $8 Uber drive home for her,” he said.
Added Muzayen: “I just hope to be able to continue reducing the amount of accidents like this. Almost always, it’s not the DUI (driver) who gets hurt, but passengers or other innocent people.”
Muzayen, who still speaks with a German accent and while living in Berlin was at one time a semi-professional soccer player, is praying he soon will be well enough to return to patrol.
More immediately, he’s hoping to get out of the hospital. The visitors, many bearing food and protein-enhanced smoothies — a favorite — are helping immensely, he said.
“It’s amazing the amount of support I’ve gotten from my police department, family and friends, the Marines — it’s been incredible, and I am humbled,” said Muzayen, who in addition to English speaks German and Arabic (his late father, Ahmad, is from Palestine).
The Santa Ana PD has been a big supporter, Muzayen said, as has the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. Muzayen graduated from the OCSD Regional Training Academy in 2013.
Muzayen has two sisters in Germany, Miriam and Sara, and one in Georgia, Summer Loomis, 31, who twice has flown out to O.C. to visit him since Dec. 10.
“It’s just hard to see him hurt,” said Loomis, who visited her brother last week with one of her three daughters, Alexis, 9. “It’s been very stressful.”
Loomis, a former police dispatcher, said she has been amazed by the community support.
To date, through the Orange Police Officers Association, a GoFundMe page and other vehicles, well-wishers have donated close to $60,000 to the Muzayens. In addition, employees of the Orange PD dipped into their collective pockets to buy Christmas gifts for Vanessa and Sharif and their children.
On Friday, Dec. 30, doctors sliced skin from his right thigh and grafted it onto his left leg, which is swollen to more than twice the size of his right leg. They hope the skin takes well and that it will be his last surgery.
Muzayen likely will remain hospitalized for more than a week. Then he will undergo physical therapy for several weeks.
When he gets out of the hospital, one of the first thing Muzayen wants to do is see “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” He and Vanessa had planned on seeing it on opening day, Dec. 16.
“I will wait for him to see it,” Vanessa said. “I feel like I’m cheating if I don’t.”
For now, she and her sister-in-law — and scores of officers, firefighters and Marine personnel, as well as members of the community at large — are grateful Muzayen didn’t die that night in a year that has been horrible for law enforcement.
“Who survives something like this?” Loomis asked.
Said Vanessa: “It’s a miracle.”