Sgt. Nate Cooper recovers from on-the-job injury

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Thanks to cutting-edge orthopedic surgery, Sgt. Nate Cooper recovered from a potentially career-ending injury that happened on the job in January 2010. Here, Sgt. Cooper poses with his son.It hardly sounded like the most perilous call of Sgt. Nate Cooper’s law enforcement career. It was just after 2 a.m. on a January morning in 2010 when members of the Tualatin Police Department received complaints that a man was pestering drive-through customers at a local Carl’s Jr. restaurant.

When it came time to arrest the perpetrator for harassment, he took off on foot — and Cooper was in full pursuit.

The natural elements were not in his favor.

“It’s the middle of winter, it’s slick out,” Cooper recalled. “My feet go out from under me (while I’m at) full sprint. I went right down on my left shoulder.”

He immediately knew something was wrong: For one, he suddenly couldn’t use his left arm. Still, Cooper got into his patrol vehicle and ended up tracking down the fugitive.

“We got him into custody,” Cooper said. “I got on my radio and asked for medical (assistance) for myself.”

He admitted that at that point, the pain in his left shoulder was so intense he almost passed out. There was good reason for this: X-rays would reveal the fall “caused his shoulder blade and collar bone to completely separate from one another,” occupational orthopedic surgeon Dr. John Di Paola of Occupational Orthopedics in Tualatin said. “The reason that happens is there’s a series of ligaments that hold those bones together that had ruptured, and they tore.”

In other words, Cooper had suffered a shoulder separation.

“All the tendons across the top of my left shoulder were severed,” Cooper said. “My arm wouldn’t move. There was nothing to hold it up.”

A painful choice

Nine years into his law enforcement career, with his left shoulder bone displaced by an estimated inch and a half, Cooper was presented with two options: One, he could wait and see how his shoulder would heal on its own. Or he could undergo a procedure to reconstruct his shoulder by replacing the two torn ligaments with tendon grafts from cadavers.

Ideally, Di Paola said, “his collar bone could be brought down and reconnected to his shoulder blade.”’

Di Paola said his practice is completely dedicated to the treatment of injured workers, “everyone from first responders to the people who make your bed when you stay in a hotel.” The grafting procedure, however, is not recommended for everyone.

“The way they explain it, they don’t recommend the procedure unless you’re a pro athlete or work in (a particularly active) industry,” Cooper said. “It’s so painful, and it’s such a long process.”

But “Cooper needs to be in peak performance at all times, and he’s in a stage of his career where he’s very, very active to the extreme,” said Di Paola.

The decision was left to Cooper.

“I think the doctor’s position in advocating for their patients is to tell them the truth at all times,” said Di Paola, “and to create a realistic expectation.”

Di Paola didn’t mince words when it came to the surgery’s chances for success, and he was very clear about the amount of pain Cooper would endure if he opted for the procedure.

“Even before the operation, he said, ‘You’ll have no idea the pain you’ll be in,’” Cooper recalled.

Di Paola explained the extent to which Cooper’s left arm would be atrophied when the sling was removed (Cooper is right-handed, which he counts as a blessing).

Duly warned, Cooper had surgery about a month and a half after the incident, and after a strenuous regimen of physical therapy, he was back at work by June, starting off with what is classified as “light duty” before he was able to return to his route as a patrol sergeant in Durham.

Acute physical pain persisted through the rest of the year, up until December, Cooper recalled.

“I can’t explain the pain you’re constantly in,” Cooper said. “You’re in a sling for eight weeks after the operation. You cannot do anything. It’s horrible pain all the time. It doesn’t get any better.”

Working to heal

Cooper was also told he would have to work for his recovery, through a long process of physical therapy.

“The healing body doesn’t like to be immobile or at rest, it likes to move,” Di Paola said. “That’s the healthiest state. People who are immobilized by injuries are susceptible to other medical conditions and problems.”

But once Di Paola finished surgery, he said, all he can do for a patient is watch and coach. “Everything else is up to the patient.”

This suited Cooper just fine, and for Di Paola, Cooper proved to be a model patient.

“He’s very compliant,” Di Paola said. “He’s very disciplined, following the recommendations we made. And he’s very fit and healthy. And then when the graft material healed, he was very, very faithful about following his rehabilitation program and following his orders, and we gradually released him to higher and higher levels of activities,” eventually allowing Cooper to return to his duties as a police officer.

Now, Cooper estimates that physically, he’s at “85, maybe 90 percent” of where he was prior to the accident.

“Working with Nate is what makes my job,” said Di Paola. “It was kind of a perfect storm between Nate being an ideal patient and the orthopedic technology being available. Nate stepped up to the plate, we established a great relationship, and I just walked away from that situation feeling I had the perfect job.”

He adds, “There were a lot of high-fives on that last office visit.”

For more information about Dr. Di Paola, go here. He is a part of the A Nation in Motion orthopedic project.

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