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Continuing her strong push

Nearly four years after being shot three times by a suspect, ex-LAPD Officer Kristina Ripatti is making maximum use of a part of her body that had not been left paralyzed: her arms.

April 26, 2010|By Jean Merl, Los Angeles Times

"Arms. Arms are good."

Tim Pearce seized hold of the thought.

He was in a cramped hospital waiting area shortly before midnight on a Saturday in June 2006. His wife, Kristina Ripatti, like him a Los Angeles Police Department officer, had been shot three times.

At first, nobody expected her to make it. Then doctors brought news that was both heartening and devastating. Ripatti would survive, but her spinal cord had been severed. She would be paralyzed from the chest down. She would, however, have use of her arms.

Sports had been a linchpin of Ripatti's life, and her husband sensed that she would recover more quickly and fully if she could resume the activities she loved — biking, surfing, fishing — even with limitations.

With arms, he thought, that would be possible. With arms, the things she cherished would be within reach.

Pearce recalled a documentary he had seen about surfer Jesse Billauer, who was paralyzed in a surfing accident at age 17 but was able to return to the ocean and ride waves with specialized equipment.

"We've got to find him," Pearce thought, "so she can surf again."

Ripatti grimaces with effort. Her vibrant blue eyes are clamped shut, her mouth twisted, as she strains for one more pull-up.

At a gym near the couple's South Bay home, Ripatti's trainer lifts her so she can reach the bar on the equipment; he holds her upright to compensate for her wasted abdominal muscles, grasping her by the handles on a vest that Pearce designed for these workouts.

Ripatti spends an average of two hours a day, five days a week, in the gym, using weight machines to train the muscles on her upper back, shoulders, triceps and biceps — pretty much the only ones she can still use.

Those muscles allow her to help care for and play with her children, Jordan, 5, and Lucas, 2. They enable her to get in and out of her wheelchair unassisted and break it down and toss it into her car, which she drives with hand controls.

With those muscles, she has completed the Boston and Los Angeles marathons, covering the 26.2-mile distance on her hand cycle.

Growing in Apple Valley, she was a tomboy who eschewed ballet lessons for soccer and softball and who defended her best friend — a boy — from neighborhood bullies. She played soccer at California Lutheran University, and a shared passion for sports and fitness was one of the earliest connections she found with Pearce, whom she met on the job. They married in 2003.

When Ripatti was a young police officer, her arduous workouts kept her in shape for street patrol. They brought her solace when her younger sister Maureen died from complications of lupus in 2003. Now they give her a measure of the independence she cherishes.

Ripatti, 37, said that after the shooting, she "couldn't wait to get back to the gym. I needed to be strong again, even if I was going to be in a chair."

After she was released from California Hospital Medical Center and spent two months in intensive physical therapy and rehabilitation, Ripatti and Pearce resumed many of the activities they loved.

Billauer gave her a lesson in how to catch waves while lying on her belly.

When they surf together, Pearce carries her into the water and, using swim fins, pushes her board beyond the surf line before turning it toward shore. She rides the wave in and he follows close behind.

Pearce, 42, who worked in construction before joining the LAPD, modified some of the couple's "toys" for his wife's use. He built a floating platform, equipped with a wheelchair and rudder, that Ripatti uses to navigate across Convict and Rock Creek lakes in the High Sierra, where they go fishing for trout several times a year.

He had hand controls installed on a dune buggy for trips to the Mojave Desert. Once, when the buggy wouldn't start during a desert outing, Pearce and a friend duct-taped Ripatti's torso to his own, and off they went on his dirt bike.

"Maybe it was selfish on my part," Pearce says of their outdoor activities, "but I wanted us to be able to get back as much of our lives as possible. I'm super-fortunate that she has the mind-set to keep pushing on."

On June 3, 2006, the day their lives changed, Ripatti and Pearce competed with other LAPD staffers in an annual relay race at Dockweiler Beach to honor fallen officers. Afterward, they left daughter Jordan, then 15 months old, with Pearce's mother and headed to work in neighboring South L.A. police divisions.

Shortly after 10 that night, Ripatti and her partner, Joe Meyer, were on routine patrol near USC when they saw an older man run across the street, look at them oddly and appear to drop something. When Ripatti got out the car and walked toward him, he took off.

Meyer and Ripatti did not know that the suspect, James Fenton McNeil, 52, had served time for armed robbery and murder and had just robbed a gas station.

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