WHEATON, Ill. (STMW) – In less than a month, the Rev. Jerry Leake’s progress has been amazing.
On the day after Christmas, Leake was a passenger in an Aurora squad car that was responding to a burglary in progress. The squad car hit a patch of ice and slid into a tree.
Rescue workers had to cut the roof off of the squad to get Leake out. He had a broken pelvis, broken ribs and bleeding on his brain. Almost his entire body was black and blue.
He was taken to Rush-Copley Medical Center in Aurora, then flown to Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, where they could better handle his severe injuries.
But on Friday, less than a month after the crash, Leake was using a walker to move through the halls of Marianjoy Rehabilitation Center in Wheaton. He was getting in and out of a car set up inside the building. And he says he has very little pain.
How has he made such amazing progress?
Was it his tremendous physical condition? Leake, 68, regularly plays basketball, runs and rides his bike.
Or was it something else?
Leake’s room at Marianjoy is filled with cards and posters from supporters. When Leake was injured, supporters started e-mailing their prayer lists … to those who e-mailed other prayer lists … until so many people were spreading the word that one priest received 10 requests to pray for Leake.
A friend said when Leake was at Loyola, the hospital tried to work out a system with the church because the calls to check on him were overwhelming the hospital staff.
Police departments as far away as the state of Oregon called Aurora to offer sympathy.
At St. Joseph Church, where he is the pastor, staff still answer multiple calls every day, many from former students at Aurora Central Catholic, where Leake taught for 24 years.
So maybe it was a bit physical fitness and a lot spiritual fitness that got Leake to where he is today.
“Prayer is powerful,” Leake said Friday from a wheelchair. “I don’t know how I’m going to thank them. I can’t thank everybody enough. I just really want to thank everybody from the city of Aurora.”
Plans to ride again
In some ways, Leake is not a typical priest. For one, he co-owns a drag racing car called “Padres Faith” that has raced around the world. In January, the car competed in Qatar — a trip that Leake would have made if not for the crash.
And for decades Leake has ridden with Aurora police officers, going along to wherever the calls take him. “Father Jerry” is a legend in the police department, having been the chaplain since 1975, except for two years he spent in Elgin. During that time, he has routinely done “ride-alongs,” offering counsel to officers or citizens.
“I think you can bring God to a lot of people,” Leake said. “I think it is a real ministry.”
Leake was on one of those ride-alongs on Dec. 26, 2010. Leake remembers the car starting to fishtail, then he woke up at Rush-Copley, then woke up again in Loyola.
The officer — who has not been identified — was treated and released from Rush-Copley.
The crash is being investigated by traffic investigators, and the officer’s actions are being reviewed by the Office of Professional Standards. Every traffic crash involving an officer is reviewed to determine if the officer was following department guidelines.
Aurora police spokesman Dan Ferrelli said the investigation into the crash will take several weeks to complete, but Ferrelli said a preliminary investigation shows that the officer was driving in an appropriate manner for the call.
“He is very upset that the accident occurred and joins the rest of the Aurora police family in their thoughts and prayers for Father Jerry’s speedy and complete recovery,” Ferrelli said previously.
Leake has talked to the officer several times since the crash and holds no ill will.
“I told him the first time (I talked to him), when I’m back I’d ride with him,” Leake said.
Leake has pictures of the damaged squad car hanging in his hospital room. The passenger side is heavily caved in. It’s barely recognizable as a squad car. But within two days of the crash, Leake was sitting up. He said his total recovery could be about four months.
“I think ultimately it’s in God’s hands,” Leake said. “Looking at the car, it could have been a lot worse.”
He’s already made tremendous progress. He’s graduated out of speech therapy and onto the higher levels of occupational therapy. He’s learning how to get in the shower or carry food with a walker. He can already put 50 percent of his weigh on his left leg. He avoided surgery and the pelvis is healing on its own, he said.
Friends of Leake say their biggest concern will be making sure he takes it slow once he is out of the hospital. Leake expects to be released from Marianjoy in about a week. But he will still have weeks of at-home rehabilitation. Friends promise to stand guard and keep the well-wishers to a minimum.
Of course, Leake is already trying to figure out a way to celebrate Mass with a walker, although he admits that might not be possible.
After a lifetime spent in service to others, Leake has had to humble himself and accept help. He jokes that the Dec. 26 crash sent him from Christmas straight to Lent, the period of the liturgical year that leads up to Easter and focuses on humility.
The physical restrictions have given Leake pause. A black belt in hopkito, Leake needs help to lift his leg. Before this, he never thought much about how easy it was for him to move his leg.
“I’ve reflected on that,” he said. “In a way, even in our faith journey, we sometimes take God for granted.”