Rolando Jimenez performs physical therapy with the help of physical therapist assistant Sue Alden at Gwinnett SportsRehab at Gwinnett Medical Center-Duluth. Jimenez is recovering from injuries suffered in an accident while directing traffic outside Lanier High in February. (Staff Photo: Keith Farner)
DULUTH — The fight began as soon as he was hit.
Rolando Jimenez doesn’t remember anything from the immediate moments after his life changed at about 6:45 a.m. on Feb. 13. As Lanier High School’s Resource Officer, Jimenez was directing traffic that morning on Buford Highway at the north entrance to the school when a white 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee barrelled into him and began what’s expected to be a yearlong recovery. His left knee will never be the same.
“Even though I don’t remember the trauma,” he said, “my thing was, ‘Uh uh, I’ve got to fight this.’ What I’ve learned is family and the community, don’t give it away. Fight for it, keep it.”
Jimenez, Lanier’s SRO since the school opened in 2010, considers himself lucky.
“Typically,” he said, “the stats for this kind of incident, people don’t make it.”
Jimenez not only made it, he’s smiling.
“He’s never complained,” his wife, Melissa, said. “Never said, ‘Why me?’ He’s very strong and determined.”
There were plenty of reasons to complain, if he wanted.
There was the three months when his mouth was wired shut and he lost 49 pounds. A milestone at the end of those days was getting mashed potatoes over Jell-o. Jimenez suffered a pelvic fracture, internal bleeding, torn tendons and ligaments in his left knee and two broken fingers on his left hand. For three months, he couldn’t put weight on his left leg. In recovery at home, Jimenez did exercises three times a day to break up scar tissue in his knee.
Six months after the accident, Jimenez still couldn’t open his mouth wide enough for a double cheeseburger, his favorite.
“I guess that’s good,” he said, smiling. “I shouldn’t be complaining.”
While there have been a list of milestones, Jimenez said an important one came on March 26 when he took his first step. Jimenez said it felt like he lost 10 pounds in the first three seconds.
“I was incredibly nervous,” he said. “It took a second for my thoughts to get clear, but it looked like a lifetime.”
Jimenez spent eight days at Gwinnett Medical Center-Lawrenceville, then was transferred to the Glancy Rehabilitation Center in Duluth until April 10. He now does therapy at Gwinnett SportsRehab at GMC-Duluth.
“It’s not going to stop me from doing my job, I love my job,” he said. “That’s my motivation, getting back in shape and going back to where I was. People say, ‘So you’re not going to do traffic anymore?’ No, this is not going to stop me. I’m going back to doing what I was doing. I miss my job, miss the Lanier community.”
That community poured out in droves to support its beloved SRO. More than 100 people visited on Jimenez’ first day in the hospital. And when Melissa returned home in the evenings to give their four sons some normalcy, people from Lanier and 12Stone Church — where Jimenez has directed traffic for 14 years — sat with Jimenez in his hospital room.
“He really enjoys being around the kids,” Lanier Principal Kerensa Wing said. “Some police officers have a standoffish side, but he enjoys interacting and getting to know the kids.”
Added Melissa, “We never knew how involved he was in the community until this happened, and people just kept flooding in and wanting to help.”
The Lanier baseball team has organized several fundraisers that benefited the Jimenez family, but it wasn’t alone. The Suwanee Police Department and the Lanier High faculty and staff put on a fundraiser basketball game in March, while the Gwinnett Braves invited Jimenez to throw out the first pitch in June. Melissa's father is retired from UPS, and a golf tournament next month has been organized by a fellow UPS retiree, Angelo Sampona.
The community also donated three months worth of meals to the family, Melissa said.
“It’s been amazing,” Jimenez said. “All the support, not just myself, but the whole family. Not just the Lanier cluster, but the entire Board of Education. Emails and calls from schools where I’ve never worked.”
The community support helped ease the sudden adjustment for the rest of the family. Their four sons, ages 11, 13, 16 and 18, had to step in and do laundry and dishes. Their home was also modified to have a hospital bed in the living room. Melissa, a stay-at-home mother, said her sons’ world was, “turned upside down, but we made do.”
“They went from having me there all the time, to me being gone all the time,” she said. “But it was a hard adjustment. I’m very hands-on with the kids. Since I don’t work, they’re used to seeing me all day everyday, so adjusting to that all day was hard.”
Jimenez said he was surprised to see nearly 3,000 people “like” the Facebook page “Get Well Officer Jimenez,” and he said there are countless people he calls “waving friends” who have a connection with him from passing by his post for years at Buford Highway and Old Suwanee Road.
“All that support has helped me continue this,” he said. “If I had no support, family support, community support, it would have been very hard. That is a major impact on me physically and emotionally.”
Jimenez’ positive attitude has had an effect on his recovery, said Sue Alden, a physical therapist assistant who is among a team of therapists at Gwinnett SportsRehab working with Jimenez. Alden has focused on strengthening Jimenez’ quad muscle so his recovery is faster after he has an anterior cruciate ligament surgery soon.
“I’ve never seen him down,” Alden said. “I’ve never seen him say, ‘I can’t.’ He’s all positive. He even makes us feel more positive, the energy comes off.”
In Jimenez’ absence, the Lanier cluster has received part-time help from North Gwinnett SRO Warren Young, interim Lanier SRO Jennifer Pressley, who came from the Meadowcreek cluster, and the Gwinnett County Police Department, which has been contracted to direct traffic.
In late July, Jimenez returned to light duty part-time work, and last week began a full-time shift still working light duty. That met a goal he set for himself, and the next goal is to return to the Lanier cluster early next year.
“His progress has been remarkable,” Melissa said. “He basically in the beginning depended on somebody for everything, and now he doesn’t do that. He’s come a long way, and he’s come faster than any of the doctors or therapists thought he was going to.”
Since the incident happened, there have been improvements to the sidewalk and crosswalk in that area, where water used to collect, which caused students to avoid the area. The district also increased the wattage on the lights near the intersection, Wing said. Jimenez said he would like to work with the Department of Transportation to reduce the speed limit, because he said 40 mph is too fast.
As he continues to improve, and prepares for another knee surgery in September, Jimenez said he’s been amazed by the ongoing community support, and is ready to reciprocate, if needed.
“It’s been a long journey, and hopefully no one goes through this, but if they do, they can get through it,” he said. “If something happens to one of my friends, I will do the same as they did for me.”