DPS officer raising awareness about PTSD

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By Tami Hoey By Tami Hoey

PHOENIX -- DPS Officer Alex Lopez says his world turned upside down in a matter of three minutes.

That’s how long the high-speed pursuit lasted on Dec. 17, 2009. Lopez started chasing a stolen SUV driven by a woman high on meth.

"She’s trying to get me to crash; she’s going 100 miles plus, in and out of traffic," Lopez recalled. "She didn’t want to get caught; it was the perfect storm that night."

It was a chaotic, high stress situation which tragically turned deadly. Lopez’s colleague, Officer Chris Marano, was laying down “stop sticks” on Loop 101, when the suspect veered into the shoulder toward Marano, forcing him to jump out of the way. As a result, he was hit by Lopez’s patrol car, an unavoidable and tragic accident.

The female driver in the chase, Georgia Lynn Baker, was eventually charged and convicted in connection with Marano’s death. However, Lopez says he silently suffered feelings of guilt and blame, upon returning to patrol just ten months later.

"I completely isolated myself from my squad," explained Lopez, who also described feelings of anger during that period.

"I felt like nobody cared. I was out there floundering, and I really felt that nobody really cared what I was going through," he said.

What Lopez didn’t realize at the time, he was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

"It doesn’t come on a week after the incident. It takes months and months, maybe six months, a year, two years for your brain to start getting the onset of post traumatic stress disorder," said Lopez.

It took him two years before someone from his department told him about the West Coast Post-Trauma Retreat in California, a special program specially designed for first responders who have experienced trauma. The program’s staff and therapists all come from a law enforcement background.

"A regular psychologist doesn’t understand our culture, and what we go through every day," said Lopez.

He describes the Retreat as his turning point.His therapy has continued at home with another organization, the Horse Rhythm Foundation, which combines the healing power of horses with psychology.

"It’s just building a relationship with the horse and using that as a metaphor for learning to trust again and learning to overcome a lot of the issues that I was having," said Lopez.

Lopez now visits the ranch almost every day.

"“They feel your emotions; they know exactly what you’re going through," Lopez said of the horses. A combination of therapies has helped him to begin healing.

"The biggest takeaway was just letting go of the guilt," said Lopez.

Lopez is now the first responder liaison for Horse Rhythm Foundation. He’s also speaking out and sharing his story to aspiring officers to raise awareness that traumas happen and resources are available.

"There’s a culture in law enforcement for years and years where officers just don’t want to get the help," said Lopez. "You don’t want to be perceived as being weak; you’re supposed to be able to handle everything you come across."

But, that’s a mentality that Lopez says need to change.

“I’ve probably gone through one of the worst experiences that anyone could go through, and I got through it. It wasn’t easy, but I made it through to the other side," said Lopez.

However, he couldn’t have done it alone.

"There’s no shame in going out and getting the help you need," Lopez said.

It’s a message he wants to stress to anyone suffering from PTSD.

Click here to learn more about the West Coast Post-Trauma retreat

Click here to learn more about the Horse Rhythm Foundation