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As costs loom, backers stand by Parete

Patricia Parete, the police officer paralyzed in December after being shot in the neck, probably will need an "unlimited amount of money" to pay for out-of-pocket expenses in the near future, her friends and colleagues say.

That is why they continue to raise money for her, even after donations already total a half million dollars.

"Her medical expenses are being paid for by the city, but all her living expenses are up to her," said Lt. John P. King, a good friend who has visited Parete in the New Jersey rehabilitation center where she has been treated for three months.

"Her living needs are going to be extraordinary, and she needs an unlimited amount of money. She's going to need daily care, visiting nurses, in-home care, housekeeper. . . . She can't feed herself; she can't cook; she can't clean. . . . The list is virtually endless. And I'm just touching on the surface here."

Under state law, the city must pay a police officer disabled in an accident full salary and all medical bills until the officer can return to work or is awarded disability retirement benefits.

But in Parete's case, what expenses the city will -- and won't -- pay remain unclear. That includes a wheelchair-accessible van and living accommodations -- building an accessible house or remodeling her apartment.

"We can't discuss medical issues regarding City of Buffalo employees," said Leonard A. Matarese, the city's human resources commissioner. "The city will absolutely comply with all the applicable statutes, including privacy statutes."

The city continues to pay Parete's full salary and all her medical expenses.

That may change in coming months or next year, when Parete could be granted state disability retirement. The city then would continue to pay her medical expenses, and the state would pay 50 percent or 75 percent of her $51,099 annual salary.

Although family and friends continue to hope that the 42-year-old Parete will defy the odds and regain her mobility, doctors have said she probably will be a quadriplegic.

The city is responsible for covering all medical expenses related to her at-work injury for her entire life. Those expenses includes rehabilitation and prescription medication.

But Parete's day-to-day living expenses and some costs associated with making her environment more wheelchair accessible will be her responsi-bility.

Like many of Parete's friends, King talks about Parete's determination to regain movement below her shoulders while undergoing rigorous physical therapy in the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, N.J.

"She doesn't consider herself disabled," said Chief Donna M. Berry, another friend. "She really feels like she's going to be better, and she wants to walk out of those doors."

Berry said more than $500,000 has been raised for Parete's trust fund, which will help cover her out-of-pocket expenses.

"The community has been unbelievably generous, and the outpouring of support has been absolutely amazing," Berry said.

The trust fund, set up through the Police Benevolent Association, combines money raised through donations and several fundraising events.

Legal experts say Parete may face hurdles if she asks the city to pay for alternative medicine, experimental treatments and making her environment wheelchair accessible.

James B. Tuttle, an attorney based in Albany, is not representing Parete, but offered his expertise as a lawyer who specializes in labor laws.

"Any medical expenses, operations, medical treatments and home health care prescribed by a doctor are going to be covered," said Tuttle, who also represents the Erie County sheriff's deputies. "Constructing a house for a wheelchair and a new ramp may not be considered a medical expense."

Making Parete's apartment accessible or even buying her an accessible home could be expensive since it could require lowered cabinets, lowered sinks, widened doors and wheelchair ramps.

"This stuff is not cheap," said Thomas H. Burton, a former police officer and Buffalo attorney who became a quadriplegic in 1993, when he broke his neck in a motorcycle accident.

"Anyone who has redone a bathroom or kitchen has faced sticker-shock with how much cabinetry costs," said Burton, who is helping to oversee Parete's trust fund.

"Imagine doing it at a home where everything has to be customized for someone who's in a wheelchair. It's an expensive proposition. . . . Retrofitting a house, many times, is more costly than building an accessible house right out of the starting block."

Adaptive technologies, computer-related technologies, vocational rehabilitation and travel are expensive, Burton said.

A vehicle lift, to convert a standard van into a wheelchair-accessible vehicle, would cost $40,000 to $50,000, he said.

A dictation computer program, with the required computer, could be another $3,000 to $4,000, he added.

The law does not clearly distinguish between medical expenses and necessary treatments not prescribed by a doctor, legal experts say.

"There's always a gray area as to what is emotionally needed and what rehabilitation is needed because it's not just about bandages and wheelchairs," Burton said.

"We're in uncharted waters here, and one would assume that the city will meet its responsibilities with enthusiasm. This is not a case to even think about penny-pinching," said Burton.

Fundraising events held so far include a March 31 benefit attended by about 8,500 people in the Convention Center, a March 29 hockey game that raised about $90,000 and drew by more than 7,300 people to HSBC Arena, a Dec. 15 fundraiser in Club Marcella and another Jan. 14 in Nietzsche's, which raised about $5,000 each.

More fundraisers are planned. A motorcycle ride -- organized by friends who shared Parete's love for riding motorcycles -- is scheduled for Aug. 19.

Contributors can send donations to the PBA Fund for Officer Parete, 74 Franklin St., Buffalo, NY 14202.

Donations also can be sent to the Patricia A. Parete Fund, Box 682, Kenmore, NY 14217.

"Money doesn't make a spinal injury better, but it does make the circumstances more bearable," Burton said.

"Anyone in their right mind who goes through a catastrophic spinal injury would trade everything in Fort Knox to be the way they were before it happened. . . . With any luck, this fund will make her life a little bit more comfortable."

e-mail: vthomas@buffnews.com.

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