They huddled in a group, smiles wide, eager for hugs and photos with the man flanked by poinsettias and helium balloons.
But these weren’t children waiting to see Santa Claus. These were police officers and first responders waiting to see Brian Arterburn, the officer who suffered catastrophic injuries when he was run over by a stolen SUV in south Wichita in February.
In the hours and days following his injury, Arterburn was not expected to survive. But after 10 months of surgeries and setbacks, remarkable rallies and rehabilitation in Colorado, Missouri and Texas, Arterburn returned to Wichita on Wednesday.
“It’s nothing short of a miracle,” Sedgwick County EMS division leader Kevin Lanterman said, a touch of awe in his voice, at Harvest Community Church in west Wichita on Saturday afternoon,
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Lanterman was one of the first EMS paramedics to reach Arterburn after he was struck on Feb. 7 while deploying spike strips on Topeka at Kinkaid in south Wichita. He was trying to halt a man who had fled authorities investigating a stolen vehicle case.
Lanterman and Arterburn had worked many calls together over the years, so to arrive at the scene and see his friend so seriously hurt “brings a call to a whole new level,” Lanterman said.
Arterburn’s return home on Wednesday was “one of my best days as a paramedic,” Lanterman said.
“We’ve been waiting on this day for a long time,” he said.
The words “miracle” and “tough” were repeated often on Saturday.
Before the gathering began at the church, someone asked Arterburn what he wants to do next.
“I want my job back,” he quipped loudly.
He still faces extensive rehabilitation and it’s unclear how much he will eventually be able to do, but Saturday was a day of celebration and reconnection. The five EMS employees who first tended to Arterburn at the scene where he was hurt gathered for a photo with him.
Leaning down from behind, Lanterman told Arterburn, “We’re all glad you’re back, buddy.”
“Yeah, I’m glad, too,” Arterburn replied.
When Deputy Chief Gavin Seiler went up to greet him, Arterburn started to stand out of respect. Seiler put his hand on Arterburn’s shoulder and told him it was fine to stay seated.
That moment captured Arterburn’s determination, Seiler said later.
“It’s great to see that in him...” he said. “Brian, he just wants to get back to work and serve his community. He’s very anxious.”
Over the course of his 25-year law enforcement career, Arterburn has built up many strong connections both within the force and out in the community, including working with children in south Wichita.
“I’ve got a lot of loyalty over the years with people, so it’s nice to be back,” he said Saturday.
Those bonds were on display in the size of the crowds waiting to welcome him back on Wednesday, said Capt. Jeff Weible, commander of Patrol South, where Arterburn has been stationed.
“Before Brian got injured, he was doing a lot of good work in the community,” Weible said. His injury “was a loss for all of us. We hated to see him get injured, but everyone’s happy to see him back.
“It’s a great Christmas present for the community and Patrol South.”