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Jim Tibbs

Good days and better days

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Ada County Commissioner Jim Tibbs says his new "best friend" is a big red pillow. He holds it tight to his chest in case he has to cough or, God forbid, sneeze.

"When you have a bypass, they cut the sternum, crack the chest," Tibbs told Boise Weekly. "And when they close the incision, they close it in layers, using cauterized wire. It's actually No. 4 fencing wire. If you cough, you can break those loose. So, you have to be really careful for at least six weeks."

It was four weeks, to the day, since his triple bypass surgery when Tibbs, 66, sat down with BW in his Ada County Courthouse office, reflecting on his 34 years on the Boise police force, his time as the state drug czar, being elected to the Boise City Council and his 2012 election to the Ada County Board of Commissioners. In particular, we talked about his two major health crises, his new grandson and his mother-in-law's chicken soup--the best medicine he ever had.

Your fahter died when you were just a boy.

In 1958, his Cessna 310, taking off from Anchorage, disappeared from the radar. I was 11 years old.

How difficult was it to mourn without a crash site or body?

It's really tough, looking for some way to make closure. That was Nov. 23, 1958. After finishing the school year, my mother, sister, brother and I moved back to Boise. I went two years at Borah High and finished my senior year at Boise High. I thought I would be one of the 2,100 students at Boise Junior College.

Is that where you first considered law enforcement?

A professor approached me to tell me about a new program in criminology. By the time I graduated in 1970, the school had become Boise State College.

You must have been one of the first graduates of the criminology program.

I think I was No. 3.

Did you then join the Boise police force?

I tested for the Department during my senior year. I joined the Idaho National Guard and joined the [BPD] force in November 1970.

How many chiefs did you serve under?

Five. I was the chief of the department in my final year. I applied for the permanent position, but I told the mayor that if I didn't get it, I would retire. It wouldn't have been fair to the new chief. It was a great time for me to retire.

Thirty-four years is quite a stretch.

I found that I really did care deeply about public service. I started thinking about running for the Boise City Council in 2005.

Let's go back to your service with the Idaho Guard. Can you tell me about the training injury that led to the loss of your left arm?

That was April of 1972. We were training in the desert and our unit was riding an M113 armed personnel carrier--12 tons, two giant tracks beneath. We were riding up top through an open hatch. The commander was driving and made a sharp right turn; we all lost our balance. We drove through a big ditch and the bottom dropped out. I was thrown off the top and one of the tracks of the personnel carrier went over my arm.

Was it severed?

It was crushed. I remember waking up on my stomach. I could feel the main artery in my arm had been cut. I could feel it wiggling and spurting blood. The tissue in my left had been pushed out and the hand exploded. I was losing a lot of blood really fast. A friend of mine took his belt off, made a tourniquet around my arm and stopped the bleeding.

Where did you end up?

They put me on a helicopter and flew, at treetop level, to Boise. They landed at Fort Boise Field. Relay teams ran my body, on foot, over to the emergency room of St. Luke's.

How much damage had occurred?

They didn't know what to do with [the arm]; it was all broken bones. They covered a massive wound with a skin graft from my leg, but there was a lot of nerve damage. Over the next three years, I had two artificial elbows put in, but I lost the use of my fingers.

At what point did the arm come off?

In 1988, I was skiing up at Bogus Basin and fell and my ski pole flipped up and hit the stem of the artificial elbow where it met the bone. There weren't many options.

Had you been healthy through the years, otherwise?

Definitely. I was a runner. I used to run six miles every day, up until 2005, when my doctor told me if I wanted to ski into my 80s, I would need to stop running. I started walking.

How sudden was your cardiovascular scare?

It was my regular checkup on July 16. I had noticed that I had a bit of chest pain during my morning walks. Otherwise, I felt good. After my doctor ran an EKG, he said, "We have a problem. I can't let you leave." I said, "Wait a minute. Is this serious?" He said, "Yes it is."

Did you have a good sense that you were heading toward surgery?

I didn't know what to expect. I knew I had a blockage. I didn't know I had three. They finally determined that the main artery was 99 percent blocked, the one next to it was 90 percent blocked and the one in back was blocked as well. By then, I was at St. Al's. I was scheduled for the No. 1 slot for a triple bypass the next morning.

Can you speak to the quality of care you received?

The doctor who did the surgery, Dr. Steven Jones, walked in after and said, "Everything was perfect. You're going to be fine." Dr. Steven Rider, who did my angiogram was super. I received an incredible amount of personal attention. It was always, "What can we do for you?" "Are you in pain?"

Were your first days of recovery difficult?

You ache all over. You're really uncomfortable those first few days.

And your appetite?

Even water didn't sound good. Everything tastes bad. Then my wife Sally's mom had made some chicken and rice soup. A few days later, I finally said, "Let me try it." It was wonderful.

And now, you're a new grandpa.

Henry, my daughter's son, was born Aug. 1.

Considering the many controversies that swirled around the Ada County Commission for several years, things appear to be relatively calm of late.

Dave Case, Rick Yzaguirre and I work really well together. Nobody slams the door or writes something nasty on a blog anymore. About three weeks into the job earlier this year, my wife asked me how things were going. I told her that I thought I accomplished more in three weeks on the county commission than four years on the Boise City Council. That's not a criticism. They're totally different jobs and we get involved in so much more here.

But I'm sure that your doctors and families don't want your workday to get too long.

You have good days and you have better days.