RAHWAY, NJ — Sometimes in life heroes become victims and slip into a never ending maze of bureaucratic red tape.
That is what has happened to John Donofrio Jr., 32, a former Rahway police officer and hero who saved two people from drowning when their car careened into the Rahway River in 2011.
However, despite his bravery and his pride at becoming a police officer, life will never be the same for Donofrio after an accident in which he became the victim in 2012.
As hard as that is to swallow for his father, John Donofrio, Sr., fighting New Jersey for his son’s medical benefits has been a nightmare.
This father said his son continues to be a victim of a “broken state system” that is so mired in red tape his son actually will be thrown out of a rehabilitation group home this week.
“This is the result of a glitch in the state Medicaid system, not something we did wrong,” said Donofrio, Sr., his voice tinged with bitterness.
“How does this happen to a police officer?” he asked.
In order to understand why this Cranford resident is so frustrated and angry at the way his son is being treated, you have to go back to a warm summer day in 2012 when this story actually began to unfold.
Prior to June 28, 2012, everything was going Donofrio Jr.’s way. At 29 he was a Rahway police officer, owned his own home and, on off-duty hours, loved to spend time
riding his motorcycle. But, on that June day, a decision to ride his motorcycle to work would end up altering this young officer’s life and that of his father and extended family forever.
Donofrio Sr. still agonizes about his son’s decision that day and how different everything would have turned out if a driver had not made an illegal left hand turn into a fast food establishment on St. George’s Avenue in the Avenel section of Woodbridge. At that moment, Donofrio Jr. was on his way to the Rahway Police Department to begin his shift, but he would never get there because that vehicle smashed headlong into his motorcycle.
Surveillance tape from a nearby fast food establishment showed the horrific accident that left Donofrio Jr. with five broken ribs and a traumatic brain injury. His condition was so serious he was taken by helicopter to a Newark trauma center. On the way, his father said, he was told his son “flatlined,” but they managed to bring him back to life.
“He was in a coma for more than six-months before he woke up,” Donofrio Sr, said, explaining his boy was “broken from head to toe.”
After undergoing six surgeries to repair the damage he sustained as a result of the accident, one day Donofrio Sr. asked for a sign that his son would live and shortly after his son gave him a thumbs up.
During that long, emotional journey this father never left his son’s side for very long, if at all. In fact, he readily admitted he only went home to shower and change clothing for many months. And while initially Donofrio Jr.’s fellow police officers stood vigil with his father, gradually, as the days turned into weeks and then months, in the end, only his son’s partner on the force continued to visit, as he does to this day.
The oldest of four children, Donofrio Jr., was raised in Cranford. His father proudly explained that his son was very involved in judo and high school wrestling as well. He would frequently use his strength and skills to protect those who could not protect themselves, he added.
“My wife encouraged our kids to do sports and never be quitters,” he said, adding sadly that his wife, Barbara Ann, died suddenly in 2000.
Donofrio Jr. was in Japan at the time for Judo training but that all came to an end when he received news that his mother died after catching a cold that turned into a staph infection.
Donofrio Jr. flew home to help take care of his younger siblings, something, his father said, he did his entire life. So it was no surprise when one evening his son told him he was going to become a police officer.
“It was what his mother wanted,” said Donofrio Sr., who proudly pointed out his son’s heroic acts before the accident, including a time during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 when Rahway experienced devastating flooding.
His father explained that his son rescued a fellow police officer from Fanwood who was trapped in a car and would have otherwise died.
“That’s the kind of man he was,” said Donofrio Sr., sighing when he is asked how his son is doing.
“He’s walking, and trying to talk, but he will never be the same,” he said, adding softly that his son’s short term memory “is shot.”
“He’s like a child now,” the father said, but explained that everyday he sees improvement.
The former police officer remembers the life he had before the accident, because his long term memory is intact. He often will look at his father and say, “Dad, I lost everything.”
Even though the accident was not his fault and the driver was found to be in the wrong, Donofrio Sr. said the woman even fought the violations. When all was said and done, because she had a cap on her insurance, his son only received $100,000 for his injuries. After the $40,000 in attorney fees were paid, he said, that left just $60,000 to take care of his son for the rest of his life.
“Of course we had to go to the state for help. My son needed rehabilitation for a long time,” he explained, but added that Donofrio Jr. has been in a group home for those who have sustained brain trauma.
While certainly devastated by the fact his son will never be the person he was before the accident, his father refuses to give up when it comes to fighting for him, his rights and anything he needs.
Finding a place for his first born son to receive the type of rehabilitation he required was no easy feat, but Donofrio Sr. speaks very highly of Universal Institute, in Livingston, and the people there who helped his son get to the point he is at today.
“He is walking and understands what you say to him but like I said his short term memory is shot and he has difficulty talking,” because of damage to his vocal cords from being intubated for so many months.
Despite this, Donofrio Sr. is acutely aware that without this life saving equipment, his son would not be alive today.
This father admitted that although thinking about the police officer his son once was, the life he had before the accident and his life to come in the future is heartbreaking, he tries not to think about that part of this tragedy.
After months of intense rehabilitation, his son moved into a group home and that, he said, has been good for his son. However, the relief of his boy making such a giant leap was short lived.
“I began having trouble with the state regarding payment to Universal about ten months ago. Universal is a private facility, but his care is covered by the state,” Donofrio Sr. explained, adding he never expected the state to have “a glitch” in their system that stopped all payments to the facility.
After months of trying to get it all straightened out, hundreds of phone calls and the tenacious help of Universal staff who rallied on his son’s behalf, Donofrio Sr. thought everything would be okay. He was wrong.
“The state admitted there was a glitch in their system but even though they said it was fixed, Universal still hasn’t received the back money they are owed, so they told me I have to come pick up my son by June 30 because they have not received any payment from the state,” the father said.
“Someone isn’t doing their job. The state has failed a police officer who was a hero before he was critically injured,” Donofrio Sr. said, adding that he wanted everyone to know “the system’s broke and nobody is fixing it.”
“There is too much paperwork, too much repetitive information, no one knows what is going on,” he added.
Donofrio Sr. said eventually his son is going to come home but he is not ready yet.
“He needs more rehabilitation, and more help,” he said, adding that his son does not want to be a burden on
“I have reached out to elected officials and anyone who can help me straighten this out but no one has been able to help,” Donofrio Sr. said, adding that hopefully someone will read this story and step in to help.
“This was one of Rahway’s finest, a police officer who loved his job. Someone should be able to help get this straightened out so my boy can continue his rehab,” the father said.
Donofrio Sr. said when his son was in a coma, people told him that God never gives you more than you can handle, but he wishes some of that burden could be lifted.
“I just need someone to make this okay,” he said, admitting that even the medical bills, which could reach as high as $6 million, is not something he thinks about.
“Whatever the insurance doesn’t pay, I will,” he said, adding that whatever he has to do to help his boy, he will do.
Donofrio Sr. said that even though his son’s accident has taken a toll on his family, they have pulled together and done all they can to get through this difficult time.
“We are praying for a miracle here,” he said, adding that he believed that by telling his son’s story, maybe, just maybe, someone will straighten out the problem at the state level and his son can go back to the group home.