- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Prince George’s County Police Officer Edgardo Lopez, 30, was raised in a household in which his parents instilled in him the importance and value of helping others.

Officer Lopez, who was born in El Salvador, had always wanted to be a doctor, but his father would not pay for his education unless he became a lawyer. Instead, he attended a military academy in his country, but he had to leave because of an injury. Subsequently, he came to the United States on March 26, 1997. He could not speak English when he arrived and attended a language school for six months while also working at a grocery store.

“I like to help people. I realized when I was here that there are other ways of helping people,” he said.

He realized he could become something other than a doctor. He chose to become a police officer, and once he acquired his citizenship, he joined the Prince George’s County Police Department on July 10, 2006.

Last month, Officer Lopez was presented a Merit Award by Prince George’s County Police Chief Roberto Hylton for risking his life to save another’s. The award reads: “For the outstanding performance and professional judgment you exhibited while initiating life saving techniques to an unconscious male on March 13, 2009. Your quick and decisive actions were directly responsible for saving the man’s life. Your selfless actions and willingness to place yourself at risk in an effort to aid another distinguish you as a model [to] emulate.”

It was presented during a formal awards ceremony at police headquarters in Palmer Park on Nov. 17.

“I felt good about [the award], but that’s part of my job. I was trained to save lives,” Officer Lopez said after the ceremony. “We rarely use our weapons. We use our brains or our mouths.”

He explained that the training he had received from the police academy and from his field-training officers had taught him how to handle events in a calm, collected way.

Officer Lopez’s career started in District 5, which covers the Oxon Hill area bordering the Southeast quadrant of Washington. The area is known to be a melting pot of different backgrounds and nationalities. The calls for service in that area can run the gamut from domestic violence, robbery or an injured animal to a disabled vehicle, among others.

“It’s an area rich in calls,” Officer Lopez said. “We never get the same thing. We have to be diversified when we go to a call. We have to be multifaceted.”

On March 13, he received a call at approximately 7:20 p.m. to respond to the 6100 block of Oxon Hill Road for a man down. Officer Lopez was very close to that location at the time and arrived on the scene at approximately 7:21 p.m. He initially observed a man, approximately 45 to 50 years old, face down with his knees on the ground.

“I hope he’s alive,” Officer Lopez said was his first thought. He notified dispatch that he had arrived on the scene and immediately left his cruiser and rushed over to assist the man, who was not identified by the department for privacy reasons. The officer tried to roll the man over but was unsuccessful on his first attempt. He tried again and was able to get the man on his back and take his vital signs. The man felt warm but had no pulse.

“I decided to try to open his airway,” Officer Lopez said.

He noticed the man had an obstruction in his throat, which appeared to be food. While using his fingers to try to get that out of the man’s mouth, he saw that the man’s eyes were semiopen. After removing the obstruction, Officer Lopez began cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

He was the first one on the scene and didn’t give a second thought about any risk to himself. “I didn’t have time to think. No one will die in my care,” Officer Lopez said while reflecting on that day.

Normally, officers use a one-way air-system mask that enables one to give breaths to the patient without having the patient’s body fluids and air come back to the officer. The mask provides protection against contamination.

Police department policy states that when possible, employees must make use of the issued disposable airway equipment. “It’s really a split-second decision the officer has to make depending upon the criticality of the incident,” Prince George’s County Police Maj. Andrew Ellis said.

Though Officer Lopez had a mask in his cruiser, he didn’t grab it when he rushed from the cruiser to render assistance.

“I knew every moment would count,” Officer Lopez said. “I knew his life would be on the line. I didn’t know how long he had been on the ground unconscious. My only concern was there was someone on the ground, and I needed to do something.”

He obtained a minor pulse three times during CPR until an ambulance arrived. “He was coming and going,” Officer Lopez said.

Maj. Ellis said, “The officer who doesn’t use a mask really goes beyond what we would expect of an officer. The officer that proceeds without a mask puts him/herself at risk for infectious disease exposure.”

The unidentified man was transported to Fort Washington Hospital, and the rescue crew continued to work on him.

“I felt powerless,” Officer Lopez said. “I felt very frustrated. I felt that I could have done more. I didn’t get any relief because I didn’t know if he would be OK.” Officer Lopez drove to the hospital, and when he arrived, he was told to be prepared to write a report for a dead person. He filled out all the necessary information on the form with the exception of the man’s name.

The medical personnel at the hospital were finally able to fully revive the man, and he survived.

“Our procedures require that an officer has to respond to the hospital with the victim,” Maj. Ellis said. “The officer should ask the doctor for a preliminary diagnosis.”

Officer Lopez had to file an exposure report following the incident, which is standard procedure when an officer is exposed to another person’s body fluids, blood or saliva. He had to be tested subsequently for possible infectious diseases that he could have incurred as a result of his exposure. Fortunately, all tests were negative.

Officer Lopez said he was pleased to learn the man survived. “He deserved a second chance,” he said. “My job as a public servant had a meaning. I had the satisfaction of saying this is what the job is about. This is a noble career. It is one of the few times I felt satisfied with something. I realized my job was done.”

What motivates Officer Lopez to be so dedicated to his profession? He said one can achieve anything he or she wants.

“All this, I owe to my mom and my dad,” he said.

• Karen L. Bune is a consultant with the Department of Justice and a professor at George Mason and Marymount universities.

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