Robin Hopkins Robin Hopkins

The Long Walk Home

How a Surgeon's Commitment to His Patient Helped Her Regain Her Mobility

Robin Hopkins and David Chafey first met five years ago in a moment of crisis.

Hopkins, a Bernalillo County sheriff's deputy, was fighting for her life in the ICU at The University of New Mexico Hospital (UNMH). A high-powered rifle round fired by a suicidal ex-con with “cop killer” tattooed on his knuckles had shattered her femur close to the hip and severed blood vessels, causing her to lose half her blood.

Chafey, a UNM orthopedic surgeon, studied Hopkins’ X-rays and wondered whether he’d be able to save her leg – if she even survived. She was heavily dosed with painkillers at the time, but Hopkins has a clear memory of Chafey paying a visit at her bedside.

Neither could have known it then, but they were about to embark on a remarkable journey together – one that continues to this day.
 

 

Saturday, October 26, 2013, started out as routine. Hopkins had just finished her lunchtime workout at the North Valley substation when she got word that a suspect – later identified as Christopher Chase – had ambushed Albuquerque police officers, stolen a squad car and was leading them on a high-speed chase.

Hopkins jumped into her car and, following the radio traffic, planned to intercept him as he sped south on Fourth Street. “There was maybe 10 to 15 police cars behind him,” she remembers. “As he’s coming towards me, I decided I’m going to head him off and he’ll crash into me, and we’ll get him . . . But as I started to head him off, he held an AK-47 out the window and started to shoot my vehicle.”

Three rounds struck her car, disabling the engine. The fourth pierced the driver’s side and slammed into her left thigh. “It pretty much stopped me right there,” she says. “It felt like a grenade had been dropped into my lap.”

Miraculously, her patrol car had come to a halt in front of Station 30 of the Bernalillo County Fire Department. Within minutes, fellow officers, a paramedic and EMT-trained firefighters had pulled her from her car, applied a tourniquet to stop the bleeding and loaded her into an ambulance bound for UNMH.

Lapsing in and out of consciousness, Hopkins, a longtime yoga practitioner, had the presence of mind to draw on her training. “I thought, ‘Just breathe,’” she says. “That’s all you got left. If you breathe, they’ll do their part.”

A trauma team at the hospital got her stabilized, and vascular surgeons repaired her femoral artery and vein to restore blood circulation to her leg. She had compartment syndrome from the surgery, which required large open incisions to decompress the swollen muscles, and a blast injury to her nerves meant she couldn’t move or feel her toes.

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Chafey, an associate professor in UNM’s Department of Orthopaedics & Rehabilitation, specializes in saving injured limbs, often with patients suffering from bone cancer. He joined Hopkins’ care team two days after the shooting.

“The most striking thing about her injury was the initial X-ray,” he recalls. “There were bullet fragments, large fragments of femur bones, small fragments of bone. You could see that there was a tourniquet that somebody had placed. That was a sign of how severe this injury was.”

Severely injured patients often aren’t able to communicate, Chafey says. “Once Robin was up and awake and I got the chance to meet her and her husband, I realized she was a very special person – highly motivated, highly functional,” he says.

Chafey’s first step was to insert pins connecting her pelvis to her femur to stabilize the leg and protect the repair of her blood vessels. “She had multiple surgeries to deal with the external wounds,” he says. “Once those wounds were closed we could proceed with the plan for repair of her femur.”

His next move was to place a long titanium rod to bridge the gap between her upper femur and the intact part of the bone shaft. “We connected those two main segments, hoping that all the bone would start to heal in between the fracture fragments,” Chafey says. The rod would act as a scaffolding to allow the bone fragments to grow back together.

“We told her it was going to be a minimum of 10 weeks before she could put significant weight on it,” Chafey says. “We wouldn’t really know with any certainty until then how the healing process would progress.”

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Hopkins, a former Marine and dedicated long-distance runner, was inclined to downplay what had happened to her. “I was like, ‘No problem, it’s only a flesh wound – I’ll be back to work!’” she says. “I did that for a very long time. I think it’s just what we do. If I was really to accept how bad it was, I think it probably would have messed with my mind.”

She remembers Chafey explaining the procedures that would be needed and how long it would take to heal. “I didn’t understand that I couldn’t get some super cool hip and I would be on my way,” she says. “Because of the vascular damage, I had to wait a while and be patient, and I was not good with that.”

She did consider, however, what might happen if the blood vessel repair failed and she lost her leg. “It didn’t matter,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’ll get a prosthetic whatever and get back to work.’ That was my focus. Nothing else mattered.”

A discharge from UNMH to a rehabilitation hospital led Hopkins to realize she needed help for the simplest tasks, like standing up and using the restroom. And after she finally got home she had to spend months in bed with her leg elevated to control swelling.

“I remember Dr. Chafey saying it’s just going to take time,” she says. “He never said ‘no’ to me for anything, because he knew what my career meant to me. That was one of the things that stuck out in my mind.”

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Over time, the bone fragments did grow back together. The bad news was that Hopkins’ left leg was now slightly shorter than her right leg, and her ability to rotate or flex her hip was affected. “When Robin started walking it wasn’t an even stride,” Chafey explains. She needed a special brace and a shoe lift to help her walk.

But Hopkins wasn’t satisfied. “Robin asked me if there was anything we could do to lengthen her leg early on in the procedure,” Chafey says. “I hesitated, because she was having some problems with swelling in her leg, and her nerve was also recovering. I felt that it could be a possibility, but it wasn’t the right time.”

Hopkins found a specialist in Phoenix – one of Chafey’s mentors, as it happened – who was willing to do the leg-lengthening operation. “I encouraged her to go,” he says. “I felt she would be in good hands.

Hopkins came through the operation with flying colors, but she still faced a major obstacle. Her femur had healed so that it did not sit properly in the hip socket, causing back pain that made it hard for her to sit or walk. That’s when she asked Chafey for a hip replacement.

“It was going to be difficult,” he says, “because we had to remove the old rod and we had to clean some of the bone fragments and the stiffness she had from the initial procedure. The risk of dislocation is higher when you have a previous trauma, and there’s also a risk that we can re-damage the nerve during the procedure.”

This time, Hopkins underwent surgery at UNM Sandoval Regional Medical Center in Rio Rancho. “She had a nice room facing the mountains,” Chafey says. “She recovered there for a few days, and again, like always, she exceeded all our expectations.”

A year and a half later, Hopkins comes to the office for periodic X-rays and checkups. “Some of our students and residents will see her and they’re amazed,” Chafey says. “I show them her initial X-rays and her new X-rays, and they say, ‘Wow, I could never tell. She was walking outside like completely normal.’ That is probably the most satisfying thing about being a witness to her recovery.”

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Hopkins cuts a stylish figure in her spangled jeans and boots, but in her mind, she’s still the tough, self-described tomboy who eagerly pursued a career as a cop. “I loved patrol,” she says. “That was the most fun and what I was most suited for.”

But despite her determination to resume her career, it was not to be. “I retired in 2016,” she says. “I hung in there as long as I could. I wasn’t going to accept that I couldn’t go back on patrol. I got an administrative position, but I wasn’t getting better trying to work full time, so I decided to retire.”

She recently started a job with the U.S. Forest Service and is nearing retirement with the Air National Guard. “I’ve been very blessed with the support I’ve had, the camaraderie from the Guard and the Sheriff’s Department and the community,” Hopkins says. “Everyone has been very supportive. I’ve had a dream team around me.”

She’s had to give up running marathons, but her daily yoga practice – and recently, jiujitsu classes – have helped her cope with the psychological scars from her ordeal. And she’s grateful for her ongoing bond with the surgeon who did so much to help her regain her mobility.

“What I appreciate about Dr. Chafey was that compassion and optimism,” she says. “I would go to my appointments and hope that something would happen and I would get better, or after the next surgery I would be all fixed – and that was never going to be the case.

“But the way he dealt with me, I felt like I was going to be OK, if that makes sense. He never made me any promises, but he gave me hope. And not all doctors are that way.”

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