A True Partnership

Photography by Christopher Voelker

The night of June 3, 2006 started out like a typical shift for Los Angeles police officers Kristina Ripatti and Joe Meyer. They were looking for gang members or other potential perpetrators when they spotted an older man on foot who looked like a “base head,” a crack addict. Because he was acting suspicious, they stopped him, not knowing he was a dangerous career criminal. When Ripatti got out of the police car, the man took off running.

“I had no idea why he ran,” says Ripatti. “He ran into a yard and up a porch. It was dark, no lights, and the guy tried to get in the door. I grabbed him from behind to take him down and he pulled out a gun.”

The crack of the .22 caliber pistol rang in Ripatti’s ears as she fell backward and hit her head on the porch railing. The shooter fired three more shots into her body as she lay in a pool of blood, already in shock. “I just remember the first shot,” says Ripatti. “My next memory is of Joe holding me down on the ground trying to keep me still. I just wanted to get up and tried to push him off, but I couldn’t. I had no idea how much I was bleeding. I remember Joe saying, ‘Stay with me, think of Tim and Jordan'” [her husband and daughter]. Meyer had already taken the shooter down with three shots and had called for backup, but Ripatti was unaware of this. Her eyes locked in a gaze, and Meyer wasn’t sure she was going to make it.

The call was picked up by several LAPD officers, including Tim Pearce, Kristina’s husband. Pearce was working about five miles away and immediately headed for the scene. He had no idea his wife was involved in the shooting, but as his patrol car edged closer to the scene, the radio transmissions took a chilling turn and he realized the officer down was his wife.

Arriving at the scene, Pearce ran up the porch steps, slipping in a large puddle of what he thought was water. When he looked down, he was startled by the massive amount of blood. His wife’s face was white and her eyes unresponsive. Instantly his mind processed the scene and concluded there was no way she could survive. But his heart — his heart held on to hope as he knelt beside her, took her hand and whispered, “I love you and I’m right here. Hold on, Kristina, please just hold on.”

Bound by Danger
Tim Pearce first met Kristina Ripatti in 1996 at the police academy. Later they were both transferred to the Southwest Division, one of LAPD’s most violent divisions. Pearce was actually a bit intimidated by Ripatti, who was serious, determined and kept a quiet demeanor despite her reputation of having an assertive style and a near-photographic memory. In 1997 when Pearce learned he would be her partner, he thought, “Oh God, I just don’t know.” He laughs as he reminisces. “My first impression was that she was a complete grump, you know, like who is this chick? I knew her reputation and thought it was going to be a lot of work just trying to keep up with her.”

Photography: Christopher Voelker/ Makeup: Melanie Manson

Just 15 minutes into their first shift together, Pearce and Ripatti made a stop. “Right out of the chute, right out of the station,” says Pearce, “we jammed somebody and I think it was kind of confrontational. And I remember getting back into the car and the kind of joke she made and I thought she was pretty cool. After that first night, I thought she was going to be great to work with.”

And she was. “We just really enjoyed working together and we became friends. She had an interest in surfing and I’d been surfing for most of my life, so we started surfing together and working out a lot together, and then it just kind of grew. Everybody was accusing us of being a couple, but it wasn’t even on our minds because we both had kind of serious relationships.”

Not only were Pearce and Ripatti involved with other people, as partners a romantic liaison was off-limits, so they focused on being friends and doing their jobs. During the time they were partners, they saw the darkest part of society — drug dealers, murderers, and a community too afraid to help out. Working in this dangerous situation created a special trust between them. Their lives were literally in each other’s hands.

The Relationship Deepens
In 1999, after two years of working together, Pearce and Ripatti were involved in a potentially lethal shooting. Working the gang unit and in pursuit of a suspect, they were literally bushwhacked. The suspect suddenly emerged from behind a bush about 12 feet away, pulled up a shotgun and shot at them. Luckily the pellets only grazed the sleeve of Ripatti’s right arm. Pearce fired three shots, wounding the suspect.

“It was so loud,” says Ripatti. “It was right there, I thought we were dead. Something like this is par for the course being a cop, but it brings you closer, work-wise and on a personal level. We were pumped about getting the collar and invigorated about surviving.”

As shared experiences like this intensified their working relationship, their other romantic bonds began to fade. “I started withdrawing from my relationship and I guess Kristina did, too,” says Pearce. “And then eventually we would find excuses to go places together and hang out, and it just kind of grew into this relationship. We did it kind of in reverse. Usually you meet somebody and you’re attracted to them and then you get together and you figure out if you like each other, right? Our relationship is funny because we started out as friends.”

That friendship gave Pearce and Ripatti a solid foundation, so when they stopped being partners on the force, they were ready to pursue a romantic relationship. Before long they were living together. Ripatti was also living with her sister Maureen at the time. The three became close. Maureen had been diagnosed with lupus but fought the illness valiantly and seemed to be doing well. When she had to be hospitalized, Pearce and Ripatti, thinking Maureen would recover, made plans to move forward with their engagement. “You never expect someone is going to die,” says Ripatti, “so it really took us unexpectedly.”

That summer was a difficult time, but the couple married six months later. “Planning a wedding and grieving at the same time is hard. It was definitely interesting balancing emotions, but Tim and I did it together. We were each other’s support system.”

But life had more to throw at the newly married couple. That same summer, Pearce was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Within a week of being diagnosed, he had surgery, then radiation. “It felt like everything was slipping through my hands,” says Ripatti. “I lose my sister, Tim is diagnosed with cancer. I mean, he could die. It’s a lot of stuff to deal with.”

The couple had no choice but to move through the adversity. “I was more worried than Tim about the cancer,” says Ripatti. “Tim pretty much goes with the flow and doesn’t get too rattled with life’s crazy events, which is why he can probably deal with all this.”

“This” refers to Ripatti’s T2 spinal cord injury. After the shooting, the ambulance took her to L.A.’s California Hospital, where doctors feverishly worked to repair her damaged artery, remove half of her left lung and stabilize her.

She calmly relates how she found out about her paralysis: “I remember them telling me. I was intubated at the time and I couldn’t talk, so I would write down things like, ‘could you practice moving my legs now?’ I was on so many meds that I just didn’t get it. I would tell Tim I can’t move my legs or feel them, and he would tell me, “You’re paralyzed.” A few hours later I’d say the same thing and Tim would have to go through telling me again.

She likens the cycle of truth and denial to the movie Groundhog Day. It wasn’t until she was moved from the ICU that she even acknowledged she was paralyzed, and even then it wasn’t real. “I thought, ‘OK, I’m paralyzed, whatever.'” At the time she believed she was totally coherent but now realizes reality was lost in a haze of drugs and denial. “Denial is a wonderful state to be in,” she says. “I mean, they asked if I wanted anti-depressants. I thought, why, I feel great?! It wasn’t until I left California Hospital and went to Long Beach Memorial that the truth really began to set in.”

When reality dawned, it was one of those rare moments when the two found themselves alone. “It was almost a month later that we realized that this is real, this is where we are,” says Ripatti. “It all hit and I just broke down and cried, but Tim said exactly the right thing. Anytime I would fall apart, he told me just what I needed to hear. He was always there to comfort me and let me know that it was going to be OK and that he was not going anywhere.”

Moving Forward
Ripatti refers to her husband as “Mr. Fix It.” Says Pearce, “My primary and biggest goal was to show her she can still do everything. We just have to find out what she needs to do it and just figure it out so that she has no doubt in her mind that the rest of our lives will be fine. I know the potential of our relationship and I am confident we’ll figure this out. Kristina is still the woman I fell in love with.”

Tim encourages Kristina to rediscover the activities she enjoyed pre-injury.

Tim encourages Kristina to rediscover the activities she enjoyed pre-injury.

In the relatively short time since rehab, the couple have gone surfing, fishing, resumed traveling, and Pearce has even managed to rig up a dune buggy for his wife, who was never hesitant about getting back out there but often felt like she was just going through the motions. “Right after getting hurt, I was just more apathetic about life and depressed, but Tim was the one who started to find different ways to get me out there.”

In time, just going through the motions started to help Ripatti realize she was still the same person she was before the injury. “We took the dune buggy out and I’m following Tim, and, you know, just kind of trusting. He told me to do this jump that was more like an 8-foot drop-off, but he said I could handle it, and I just hit nose first and flipped it end-over-end. I’m lying there in this buggy on its side and I can’t feel anything, so I guess I’m OK. It was one of the defining moments since I got hurt when I realized I was not letting my injury hold me up. I’m letting myself go as crazy as I used to.”

The defining moments are happening more frequently now, but Ripatti knows life isn’t the same. “It’s kind of like re-identifying myself, because I had an idea of who I was and then came the injury. I mean the police work identified who I was, and I can’t go back to that, so I have to find what my new purpose is. I tell Tim all the time that I’m not sure who I am.”

She took a big step when she officially retired from the force on July 12, 2007, with full medical benefits. “It was hard to walk away from, you know, since it was such a big part of my life. I really didn’t want to leave it, but in the end I just I couldn’t do the job even half-way close to what I would want to really do, you know?”

Being police officers was not just a job, it was a way of life for the couple. “All of my friends and all of his friends — you know, we have the same social group,” she says. Leaving the force not only affects her professional life, it impacts her personal life as well. “It’s hard for any person who’s not in the police field to go into a cop party and just kind of chill and have a good time, because everybody starts talking about war stories and, I mean, I can kind of relate a little bit, but it’s bittersweet,” she says. “It was a big part of my life, and I miss it. It’s just hard.”

Although the injury closed some doors, it opened others. Pearce is now a detective, which gives him a more flexible schedule. Together they have begun speaking to schools and police academy trainees. When asked if talking about the shooting bothers her, Ripatti replies, “I don’t mind. I remember when I was going through the academy I really cherished hearing other peoples’ stories. You know, it’s not even just about the injury, it’s more about tactics leading up to the situation, so people can take what they want from it and learn. It does kind of help fill the void of having a purpose, too.”

Still, she is unsure if she’ll continue lecturing. “Public speaking is kind of a huge challenge for me. Coming up with a presentation and all that stuff. I mean, going out and actually doing it, you know, doing it pretty well, where people are at least happy with what you did, kind of fills in what I left behind.” She likes that she is able to do several of the lectures with her husband. Both of them see it as an opportunity to represent LAPD in a positive light and to give back to the community that reached out to them in their crisis.

Support When Needed
Prior to the shooting, Pearce and Ripatti were beginning to become jaded. “There’s so much confrontation that you go through,” says Pearce. “I remember starting to feel like, ‘Who are we fighting for down here?’ Common sense told you there are people hiding behind their windows, curtains, closed doors, and that kind of satisfies you that you’re doing a good enough job for them, but then you start to kind of doubt it.”

But a fundraiser for Ripatti put on by her division gave her husband a different perspective. “There was a line a couple hundred yards long all the way around the block of people waiting to get into the fundraiser. And one of our good friends, a real tough guy, was separating cash from checks. He was looking at the addresses on the checks and some of them were for like $5.73. It was obvious these people were giving whatever they could. And he was looking at the addresses and they were all from that area, and he broke down in tears. None of us as police officers ever saw these people. But here they were coming out in full force to show that they really appreciated the sacrifice that Kristina had made.

“It really got me pumped up that these are the people that we’re protecting and now we can put a face on them. We’ve had that experience time and time again, just over and over in so many different ways through all of this.”

Support also came from ABC’s Extreme Home Makeover. “The house made a big difference because I was able to do things,” says Ripatti. “Before, I couldn’t even get into Jordan’s room. I was living on the bottom floor, and Jordan’s room was upstairs so I couldn’t do stuff like put her to bed or give her a bath. I was missing a part of a lot of her life.”

The media attention brought benefits, but living in a fish bowl also pressured Ripatti to maintain a “Pollyanna” attitude about what happened. “People come up to you and ask, ‘How are you doing?’ and they don’t want to know, because who wants to hear the truth? They’re always talking about your injuries, saying, ‘Oh, you’re gonna get past this,’ and ‘You’ll do this again.'”

Even Ripatti was determined to deny the extent of her injuries and embark on the “I will walk again” path common among those new to SCI. “When I first got hurt, I totally prepared myself to walk again. I would go to rehab five hours a day, seven days a week, then leave and go to the gym. After a while it was like, what am I living for? Am I living my life right now just to try and walk? If it doesn’t happen, then what am I going to do?”

Often during that first year she was plagued with apathy and thoughts of suicide, and no one knew the true depths of her despair. “I didn’t feel I could burden a lot of my friends with my depression. Even Tim, I mean, obviously I guess he could see it, but he still didn’t even know a lot of times how down I was.”

Yet she held on. “As crappy as I felt, just really wanting to give up, I still had Tim, Jordan and my friends. At my lowest point, Jordan could just walk in a room and she would put a smile on my face. I’ve said a lot of times that she saved my life.”

Kristina as Mother and Wife
Kristina loves being a mother. Jordan was 15 months old at the time of the shooting. The couple was beginning to tire of the overbooked social calendar that is status quo for many police officers. “We’re a tight, social group. You can pretty much go out every week,” says Tim. So having a baby and settling in to a quieter home life was exactly what they had planned. “We intended on having two kids close together, and then when Kristina got hurt, we both kind of looked at maybe waiting five years.”

But less then a year after her accident, with Jordan at the ripe old age of 2, Kristina was pregnant again. “The doctors told me I could get pregnant, but I didn’t really think it was going to happen so soon. I had problems with clotting so I couldn’t take birth control, but I really didn’t think it mattered.”

It took awhile for Kristina and Tim to become intimate again after her injury. Initially, logistics was one of the main problems. “We were surrounded by people all the time. I was in the hospital for a couple of months and then when I got out we were in the other house. I was sleeping in a hospital bed in the living room and I had a nurse downstairs with me. We didn’t even share a bed until we got in the new house, so that was like five months later.”

Then bowel and bladder issues and a 19 month-old running around the house kept spontaneity at bay. Planning for intimate time together was called for, but it takes more than planning to resume a sex life after a spinal cord injury. Kristina explains, “It’s something that, regardless of your situation, injury or no, you have to work on your relationship to be able to be comfortable talking to your partner about wants and dislikes about sex, but the injury kind of forces you to have to talk, because if I don’t say anything, I mean, I’m gonna really be, you know, kind of left out in the cold. You have to communicate to get some kind of satisfaction.”

Finding sexual satisfaction is one of the biggest challenges Kristina is trying to deal with. “Not having sensation for sex is hard. You go through moments where you try to forget about that, but when it comes down to it, it’s really something you miss. There’s no telling if I’ll ever feel that again.”

Knowing how important sex is to a healthy relationship, Kristina and Tim work to discover ways to find satisfaction. “It’s not like before, but I get satisfaction from him being able to be satisfied. So him getting turned on turns me on, and I can feel that sexually.” Kristina realizes that it takes more mental effort now and that not being able to physically feel sex does not change the desire to have sex. “Even though you don’t feel the same physically as you did before, it fills an intimacy void, sex really fills that, it’s comforting.”

Like many couples, Kristina and Tim feel the tension that arises when it has “been too long,” but Kristina thinks the injury magnifies those feelings for her. “I get more tense and start to feel more insecure, probably more hostile, more short. But when we have time to have sex or whatever, that kind of makes things more, you know, kind of secure and connected.”

Connectedness is what helps Kristina and Tim deal with their frustrations. Disability affects the whole family, not just the person injured, and Tim’s main struggle is with his inability to “fix” things for Kristina. “Just dealing with Kristina’s anger over all this stuff — she just gets so frustrated she’ll roar, and it’s like there’s nothing I can do to make it better, and so I just kind of feel helpless and it’s very uncomfortable.”

Kristina gently cites the mantra of most women, “You know how guys are, they’re fixers. They have to fix everything. At those times, I don’t expect him to be able to fix me or do anything — he can’t. I just want him to hold me.”

Foundation of Love and Trust
At times Kristina feels overwhelmed with the changes to her body. Not only is she dealing with a spinal cord injury, but the new life inside her has an impact, too. “With Jordan, I wasn’t sick at all, really, just mild nausea. This one, the first three and a half months I was sick all day, not throwing up, but just like constantly nauseous with dry heaves. It was bad.”

Although Kristina works out daily with her Nu-step, the cardio-bike unit for which she has become the spokeswoman, the pregnancy has put a damper on some of Kristina’s other physical outlets. “I’m more limited now doing the things I want to do, and I just don’t feel good and I look fat. There are women that are so happy to be pregnant and feel even more beautiful when they’re pregnant, and I’m not one of those women. I wasn’t before.”

But the pregnancy has brought unexpected benefits as well. When Kristina found out she was pregnant, she had to drop all medications right away. Initially this caused additional ups and downs, but as things leveled off, Kristina began to show signs of her old self, and Tim was thrilled to see them.

“After almost a solid year and a half of her being angry and depressed, I kind of forgot how she was before, and just in the last couple of months she’s really come back. She’s turned a corner. Her sense of humor is there, she’s a lot more friendly, and just kind of engaging in more stuff in the house. I keep looking at her out of the side of my eye like, ‘Who is this person? I haven’t seen this person for a while.’ It’s great.”

Photography: Christopher Voelker/ Makeup: Melanie Manson

Kristina feels the change as well. “I don’t know if it’s the pregnancy hormones, the happy hormones, I don’t know what it is, but I seem to have worked my way through the worst of it.” The effect of her progress can be seen in the way she has begun to assert herself. She has taken back her role as “lady of the house” — opting to take care of Jordan, cooking and doing daily activities with less help. And she definitely has regained her sense of humor. She laughs as she gives Tim a hard time for breaking his collar bone and cracking some ribs in a motorcycle spill. “Good job, Tim. Now I don’t have any legs and you don’t have any arms — what a couple we make.”

Kristina respects Tim’s need to get away from it all sometimes and lose himself in his motorcycle racing, but she also worries. She chides him good-naturedly about the consequences he’ll face if he is not careful. “You want to be a quad in the chair with me? Most people who get paralyzed on motorcycles are quads. If it happens, you’re gonna be stuck in the same room with me for the rest of your life, and I still can talk, and I’ll be on your ass for the entire time.”

Both Kristina and Tim smile. It is easy to see the love between them. They put their lives on the line for 10 years as police officers, and as partners on the force they always had each other’s backs. They shared the sorrow of losing someone they both loved. They faced off with cancer and won. They also held strong as the Grim Reaper tried to rip Kristina from this world. Although the Reaper lost, their lives were changed forever.

Yet still they hold their ground, unflinchingly facing challenges, sorrows, adventures and joys. No matter where life takes them, they will stand strong on a foundation of love and trust. They are the embodiment of a true partnership.

Ellen Stohl is well-known to most NM readers, having been the subject of cover stories herself. She lives in southern California with her husband, David, and 4-year-old daughter, Zoe, and teaches educational psychology classes at California State University, Northridge. Currently she is working on a book. This is the first story she has written forNew Mobility.

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