Sgt. David Peterson returns to work after being shot three times in an August incident and the following recuperation
Dressed in civilian clothes, Sgt. David Peterson settled behind his desk at the Benton County Sheriff’s Office and began the slow task of answering hundreds of emails.
It was Thursday, Dec. 13, the first day back on the job in more than four months for Peterson after he was shot three times while pursuing an armed man.
The emails accumulated in the months since Aug. 11, while Peterson and his family were occupied with other matters: He spent nearly a month and a half in the hospital. His recovery has included months of physical therapy. His wife, Dana, scheduled her husband’s doctors’ appointments on a white board and set his cellphone to remind him of when to take his medications.
Eventually, Peterson turned away from the emails and looked at his telephone.
“I’m afraid to hit that button and see how many voicemails I have,” he said.
Though Peterson plans to work only eight hours of light duty per week for the next few months, his first day back on the job represented a major milestone in what has been, at times, an excruciating recovery.
Later in the day, Peterson took a box of odds and ends from his office out to his new patrol vehicle in the parking structure outside. While he was gone, his old car was cycled out and replaced with a new Ford SUV. He set the box in the back and played with the vehicle’s features — it’s equipped with an LED spotlight and both analog and digital radios.
Walking unassisted to the vehicle after suffering two gunshot wounds to the leg and one to the abdomen represents an improvement from weeks earlier. But Peterson noted that it still could be anywhere from three to six months or longer before he will go out on patrol in his new vehicle.
Since he was a teenager, the 30-year-old’s world has revolved around law enforcement. At age 15, he volunteered for the Corvallis Police Department’s cadet program and served as a cadet until age 21. He then was hired as a reserve deputy with the sheriff’s office.
From there, he became a marine deputy and eventually secured a full-time position. As a sergeant, Peterson was patrol supervisor during his shifts and oversaw the reserve program, marine patrol program and the multiagency crash team.
Through surgeries, physical pain, 51/2weeks in the hospital and what will be months of recovery at home, Peterson has struggled most with the uncertainty of whether he will fully recover and be able to meet the physical demands of his job.
“There were some dark times in the hospital where he was fearful that he wouldn’t get to go back to doing what he loves,” said Dana, “and I was struggling to reassure him that things were going to work out.”
The outlook for his return to work full-time is good, Peterson said, but his recuperation didn’t come with timelines, and that is frustrating.
“The toughest part of my recovery is having to be patient,” he said.
Peterson was standing by his old patrol car with other responders just before midnight Aug. 11 as other officers entered some brush near the intersection of Independence Highway and Spring Hill Drive. They were searching for a man who allegedly had jumped out of a stolen vehicle and run from deputies.
Seconds later, the man, later identified as California fugitive Demecio Cardenas, emerged and ran past Peterson. Peterson attempted to use his Taser on Cardenas, who fell to the ground and then allegedly opened fire.
Salem police Cpl. Andrew Connolly was hit once in the leg. He was treated at a hospital and released.
Peterson suffered three gunshot wounds, and Cardenas was hit in the exchange of fire.
Shortly after midnight, Dana Peterson heard a car pull into her driveway and was initially excited at the notion that her husband had gotten off work early.
But the garage door didn’t open.
Instead, the doorbell rang.
At first, she thought Deputy Eric Konzelman was playing a prank on her when he delivered the news, but reality soon set in. She thought of their 6-year-old son, Javon, who was sleeping in his room upstairs. Then she panicked. She needed to get dressed, find her shoes and inform David’s parents. In her anxiety, she struggled to recall her mother-in-law’s name as she scrolled through the contacts on her phone.
Dana realized the severity of the situation when she arrived at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center and learned that her husband was being prepped for surgery.
“Your heart drops,” she said, “because your whole world gets rocked.”
Lengthy hospital stay
The wounds to Peterson’s left shin and knee won’t cause lasting damage. However, the third bullet, which struck a few inches below his bullet-proof vest, led to multiple complications.
Surgeons repaired his lacerated bladder and pumped 12 pints of blood into his system to replace that which was lost from damage to a vein.
That bullet, Peterson said, “missed my spinal cord by millimeters. I could have easily been paralyzed from the waist down.”
After surgery, he remained in the intensive-care unit for five days under a medically induced coma. He didn’t open his eyes or smile. A machine helped him breathe.
“Although he doesn’t remember a lot of it, he would give me a thumbs-up when I would ask him things,” Dana said. “He didn’t talk, but I know he knew I was there.”
Peterson does remember being poked and prodded nearly every hour of the day and night after he was moved to the surgical ward. Nurses took vital signs, phlebotomists drew blood for tests, doctors checked on his condition, occupational therapists made sure he brushed his teeth, and physical therapists encouraged him to sit up and move on his own.
The lack of sleep, pain and multiple medications left him physically exhausted, but he was improving.
“It was nice when he did finally hold my hand, was looking at me and telling me he loves me,” Dana said.
She rarely left his side, sleeping in a chair that pulled out into a twin bed.
“I think maybe week four, I ventured to Market of Choice to get a few things,” she said. “And one or two times when David seemed to be resting fairly peacefully, one of the deputies took me for a walk.”
His parents brought Javon for daily visits, but they were about the only visitors Peterson accepted.
“I knew if I said yes to visitors, then I would have a hundred people walking through the door and I just wasn’t in the physical condition to see everybody,” he said.
Though his colleagues didn’t go in to see him, a deputy sat outside his hospital room door 24 hours a day during his entire stay. They sat in uniform for eight-hour shifts, working on reports and catching up on training. It was partially for protection and also for camaraderie.
“That was ordered by the sheriff and we were all completely OK with that,” said Deputy Greg Goller, who had been only feet away from Peterson when he was shot. “We wanted him to know, ‘Rest easy, we’re outside the door.’”
Peterson was scheduled to go leave the hospital after week three, but complications with his bladder and a perforated bowel extended his stay by 21/2 weeks.
Regaining his strength
When he was finally released from the hospital, Peterson was a shadow of his former self. His muscles had atrophied. His medications had sapped his appetite. He lost 25 pounds, falling to the weight he carried his freshman year of high school.
“The first time I put my wedding ring on,” Peterson said, “it was so loose it was like wearing it on my pinky.”
In the first month home, he dealt with post-surgical pain and nerve damage to his foot. He could move slowly and in short distances with the use of a walker, but he couldn’t get up and down stairs, so deputies moved a bed to the ground floor of his home.
Dana charted her husband’s multiple doctor’s appointments, medications and meal plan on a dry-erase board. She set alarms on his phone telling him which of the seven or eight medications he was supposed to take and when. Though he had no desire to eat, he stuck to a 2,200-calorie diet, which included a regular protein shake.
The nutrients helped his body heal. and he gained a pound or two a week until he reached his former weight. By mid-November, he was off pain medications and cleared to drive.
“I have that little bit of independence back,” Peterson said.
Week by week
Physical therapy began on the sixth day in the hospital, when Peterson was encouraged to attempt sitting up on his own.
Now he lifts weights, speed-walks on a treadmill and performs balance and strength-training exercises.
“I notice the difference week to week, definitely,” he said. “For a while there, it was just trying to get through it minute by minute, then hour by hour, then day by day; now it’s week by week.”
Each exercise is aimed at a specific goal. In order to meet state requirements, he must be able to perform a list of tasks, such as running, walking up stairs, crouching, and lifting and dragging a person.
A month ago, he could walk on the treadmill for three or four minutes at a time until the tendons in his foot became too sore. Now he can speed-walk for seven minutes.
“Every time I go I walk a little faster, a little faster, and maybe a little longer,” he said, pointing out he is not yet able to run. “It’s one of those things; we’ll get there when we get there. I’m taking it one week at a time.“
He is contending with damage to his gluteal and peroneal nerves. The gluteal nerve affects balance and gait. The peroneal nerve has affected his ability to walk correctly.
The tendon that lifts his foot isn’t working, so it’s tough for Peterson to push off the ground with his toes, rolling his foot as he walks. It can cause him to shuffle or the foot to slap when it hits the ground.
“My other tendons on the outside of my foot are trying to lift the foot up and they’re not made to do that,” he said. “I’ve been working on it in physical therapy.”
The extent of the nerve damage and whether it will completely heal is not known.
“It could come back in six months, could come back in two years, or maybe not at all.”
Peterson and his wife didn’t talk about the shooting right away and only focused on him getting better. Their first conversations in the hospital were about making time for each other and their son, as well as their spirituality and closeness with God.
“We talked about new priorities in our lives,” Dana said. “When something this tragic happens you start to re-evaluate what’s important.”
A few weeks ago, Dana reached an epiphany as she overheard her husband and son playing in the house.
“That made me so happy,” she said. “One, that I wasn’t robbed of hearing their laughter together, and two, that life was getting back to normal. At that moment, I realized things are going to be fine, life is going to be all right.”