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Continuing her strong push

“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.

Ripatti chased McNeil onto the porch of a four-plex at the corner of Leighton and LaSalle avenues and grabbed him from behind. He pulled out a .22-caliber revolver and fired. One round went beneath her protective vest, through her left armpit, severing her spinal cord at the second thoracic vertebra. McNeil shot her twice more in the right arm and was aiming at her head when Meyer shot him dead.

Pearce, who was working a gang detail in Watts, listened to the “officer down” radio calls and feared the worst when he didn’t hear his wife’s voice. He knew she was in the area. He rushed to the scene, arriving at the same time as the ambulance crews.

Stepping onto the porch, Pearce slipped in his wife’s blood. He knelt down, fighting to control his emotions as he kissed her and whispered that he loved her. He urged her to hang on. She was on her back, staring up with unseeing eyes.

“I knew she probably couldn’t hear me,” Pearce recalled, “but I wanted to say it anyway.”

When Ripatti came home, her life became a whirlwind. She and her husband accepted invitations to speak around the country, gave interviews and were featured at several LAPD events.

In the fall of 2006, ABC’s “Extreme Makeover — Home Edition,” with the help of 3,000 volunteers, built the couple a handsome, single-story Craftsman-style house designed to accommodate a wheelchair and an active family.

Then depression hit, enveloping Ripatti and worrying her family and close friends.

“It was about nine months after my injury and things had finally started to settle down a little bit after the house, the show and all the travel and public speaking,” Ripatti recalled. “I know a lot of that was a nice distraction from reality, but you have to face it at some point.”

Pearce said that his wife “did an amazing job in public of being a good soldier” but that at one point her depression was so severe “it was painful for her to be awake.”

Things that normally brought her pleasure — caring for her daughter, the camaraderie of fellow officers — became constant reminders of her loss. She loved playing with Jordan in the park but couldn’t get to the swings to push her. Nor could she rush to the toddler’s crib to soothe her when she awoke from a nap.

Get-togethers with off-duty police officers were bittersweet.

“I get to hear the stories, which is cool but hard,” Ripatti said. “I don’t get to have my stories.”

Pearce grew worried when she began neglecting such tasks as paying the bills and would brood for hours in the couple’s bedroom.

Then, around the first anniversary of the shooting, she learned she was pregnant, and her physical limitations did not seem so overwhelming.

“Suddenly the focus was away from the injury and on the pregnancy,” she said.

The birth of son Lucas fulfilled the couple’s dream of a two-child family. Ripatti said she eventually realized that “I’m still the same person, with the same core values, passions and mission.”

Looking at television news footage of the day she left the hospital after the shooting, naively vowing to walk again and return to her old job, Ripatti winces.

“You realize pretty quickly there’s a very fine line between hope and denial,” Ripatti says now, “and if you stay too close to denial, that can keep you from pushing forward.”

Ripatti sees staying fit as a way to toe that line.

“I want to be able to live life to the fullest and to stay mentally and physically strong for the challenges I face now and the ones that will come in the future,” Ripatti says.

In the months after the shooting, Ripatti and Pearce consulted with top specialists in spinal cord injuries and were told that embryonic stem cell research might someday result in treatments that would allow her to walk again. Though she still hopes for a cure, she said, she has learned not to put her life on hold.

“I’m very fortunate to have so much, and I want to make the most of it,” Ripatti says.

Still, she sometimes struggles with the realities of her condition. She deeply misses “not being able to feel Tim’s touch.”

“We work as a couple to find new ways to express intimacy,” she says, then adds: “I think that’s all I want to say about that.”

Ripatti is training for Race Across America, a bicycle race from Oceanside to Annapolis, Md., that spans more than 3,000 miles and 14 states. In June, again using her hand cycle, she will captain a four-person relay team to raise money for Operation Progress, a charity begun by LAPD officers to provide college scholarships for youths who steer clear of gangs.

Ripatti says such competitions help her feel as though “I have a piece of my old life back.”

She wants to become a lawyer and has received a full scholarship from Swim with Mike, an annual swim-a-thon that raises funds for disabled athletes. She’s waiting to hear if she’ll be accepted to attend USC Law School in the fall.

The couple’s rambling home has become a regular weekend gathering place for their extended family and friends.

Its open floor plan, wide hallways, and wheelchair-height kitchen counters and appliances allow Ripatti to move easily among the guests. One weekend this winter, she mixed her “killer margaritas” and wheeled about handing them out. She rolled over to the oven to check on a corn pudding she and her sister Cora were cooking.

The place was full of friends, relatives and kids. Lucas abandoned his toy trucks to step on his mother’s wheelchair footrest and clamber onto her lap. She gave him a bear hug.

Jordan raced from her bedroom to show off her frilly party dress. Ripatti reached out to fluff the skirt and smooth her daughter’s hair.

Arms are good.

jean.merl@latimes.com


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