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Colleagues' support comforts officer fighting Lou Gehrig's

It started out as a sore right thumb, and it bothered him even on his wedding day last March.

Toby O'Brien, a plainclothes police officer who regularly chased after suspects in east Tampa, figured he had sprained his thumb while handcuffing an unruly suspect.

He was wrong. O'Brien, 39, found out a few months later that he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Doctors told him the disease is like a war between his nerves and his muscles. Ultimately both die, leaving him paralyzed and eventually suffocating him.

"There's only one end result with this," O'Brien said this week.

As the disease continues its cruel progress, forcing O'Brien out of his job and forcing him to use a wheelchair, he is learning a lot about the dedication of his wife, his friends and his fellow police officers.

Lorie O'Brien quit her longtime job with a Tampa glass company to care for him. Officers donated their sick and vacation time. Last week, Tampa police Chief Steve Hogue served up spaghetti during a fundraiser at the Tampa Palms Country Club.

Friday, hundreds are expected to gather at Ker's Wing House in Tampa for the largest of several recent efforts to help O'Brien and his wife, who lost their Valrico home because of medical expenses not covered by insurance.

David C. Williams holds a fundraiser for sick law enforcement officers each year. Williams, a Pinellas County internal auditor who has survived a brain tumor for eight years, is dedicating it to O'Brien this year.

Williams said he hopes the event helps ease financial worries for the O'Briens, who are living in a cousin's South Tampa home.

Williams' fundraiser typically draws more than 1,200 people. This year, officers from as far as Tallahassee and Miami are expected to join Buccaneers like Shelton Quarles and Rick Razzano.

"This place is like a family," said Hogue. "Police officers share a lot of bad shifts and dangerous situations together, so when something like this happens, we respond as a family."

O'Brien, who decided when he was a child that he wanted to be a police officer, will get to see old friends from the Plant City Police Department, where he worked for five years before joining the TPD in 2003. Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsey is expected to attend, along with Hogue.

O'Brien will be there - in his new wheelchair.

"Less than a year ago I was working, running, chasing people," he said. "In less than 10 months, I'm reduced to a wheelchair."

Yet the Tampa native and Army veteran doesn't complain about how dependent he has become, requiring help to sit up in bed or eat his wife's chocolate cake. He doesn't complain about the pain that comes, "like a sledgehammer," when muscles cramp up.

He just enjoys the time he has with his wife and her children, 8-year-old Mark and 13-year-old Chelsea.

"I know what's going to happen to me," O'Brien said. "We're just trying to do the best we can until then."

That means planning something for his one-year wedding anniversary.

He and Lorie are thinking about Las Vegas.

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or svansickler@spttmes.com.

TO HELP

The David C. Williams Fifth Annual Celebrity Luncheon to honor Tampa police Officer Toby O'Brien will be held Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Ker's Winghouse, 8001 W Hillsborough Ave. The event is open to the public, and tickets can be bought at the door. The cost is $10 per person and includes a meal. There will be a raffle and a live and silent auction for items including weekend getaways and autographed sports memorabilia. For information, call (727) 647-5963.

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