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DEPUTY WHO HAS BEATEN DEATH BATTLES IT AGAIN
By ROCHELLE E.B. GILKEN Palm Beach Post Staff Writer


Michael J. Petrillo is a survivor.

He lost signs of life three times after a motorcycle wreck. He was rescued from a burning car. He beat a brain tumor.

Each time, he bounced back. After brain surgery, he graduated from the police academy and worked as a Palm Beach County sheriff's deputy for a few months.

On Sept. 22, Petrillo ran into death again. This time, it was a car vs. a wooden utility pole in the rain. His head took the worst of it. His brain swelled with nine trauma injuries.

His father, sheriff's deputy Michael Petrillo, was told to make funeral arrangements for his 28-year-old son, just two years after burying his then-28-year-old daughter, Melissa.

"To have a doctor come out again and tell you you're going to probably have to make arrangements," said Petrillo, 51. "I turned to my wife and said 'Don't tell me I gotta bury another kid.' God, again?" But Petrillo beat his doctor's best statistical guess. He survived.

Still, he has one difficult battle left. He is in a medically induced coma. His family is hoping and praying that there's something left of his life, that he recognizes them. That trying to drive home to Wellington on a wet road after an overnight shift won't be his last move.

Time after time, he dodged death. In 1998, while serving as a combat engineer in the U.S. Army, he drove a motorcycle into a fence at 60 mph. His father said he had a collapsed lung and fractures and had to be revived three times.

He later moved his family from New Jersey to Wellington and started at the police academy.

He was five weeks away from graduating in 2003 when he tried to get routine Lasik eye surgery. The doctor saw pressure behind his ear. It was a lemon-sized tumor.

"He was afraid. He said, 'I'm gonna win whatever it takes and get through it,' " his father said.

Doctors cut the tumor out. It wasn't cancer.

Petrillo got into the next class at the police academy and finished in December 2004, then started working at the District 3 substation in northwestern Palm Beach County. In June, someone slammed into his patrol car, trapping him inside while the car caught fire, his father said. Rescuers pulled him out without serious injuries.

Again and again, he escaped death. And now this.

His colleagues at the sheriff's office stand guard by his room, along with his wife and mother and father. It's agonizingly quiet. The doctors tell visitors not to touch him or talk to him. Petrillo can't take stimulation while his head is healing.

Annalisa Marie Petrillo, 3, isn't allowed to see her father like this. And every day when she asks, they tell her no, she can't see him, not right now. But she can sleep with his picture, so she does, every night.

For the deputies who worked with him and responded to the wreck, seeing one of their own injured in uniform was like seeing a family member get hurt. Some talked to counselors. They know being a deputy can be dangerous. But not the drive home.

"Let's say you go through your shift unscathed and you haven't gotten hurt and haven't had to fight someone," said Capt. Rob Hawkins, head of District 3. "Day in and day out, you would like to think after that, when you go home, it's one more day closer to retirement and you're safe and sound with your family. To have an accident tragically happen to you, it can happen to any of us. . . . It just sets us all back."

After spending a lifetime in law enforcement, the elder Petrillo knows well the dangers. He was proud to see his son follow his line of work, but also worried.

"You look at the risk of being shot or stabbed, but you don't think much of getting in a car crash, because you do that every day. You drive," Petrillo said.

Any day now, as the swelling goes down, doctors will bring Petrillo out of the coma. Then they will know his fate: Whether it's years of rehab. Whether his brain will recover. Whether it won't.

"I'm grateful, grateful he's not dead. Grateful there's hope. Grateful for all the support," Petrillo said. "He's fighting. I know he's fighting."
 
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