Constable Ed De Nobrega has had his optimism tested.
Six months after donning his uniform in the city’s busy west end, the rookie officer found himself faced with a life-or-death situation that had nothing to do with his work. He was told by doctors a growing tumour would have to be removed from his spinal cord and left to wonder if he would live through the surgery. The tumour was completely removed but resulted in complete paralysis from mid-torso down.
“I promised myself, that day, I’m just going to be happy from now on. As long as I’m on the right side of the dirt, I’m okay,” he says.
A few weeks after the procedure, the former professional Muay Thai fighter was able to move his foot and sent to rehab, working to get mobility in his legs over the next nine weeks – given a less-than-10% chance of walking again.
“I’ve always said that I’m an optimist. I said to my family ‘I’m going to have to prove it now,’” he says, of receiving his prognosis. “For the first 10 days, I didn’t know if I was going to live… I couldn’t take a deep breath, there was no muscle contraction. That tenth day, I was talking to my mom on the phone and I was able to wiggle my toe. At 3 a.m., I was able to take a deep breath.”
He’s had to take a lot of deep breaths ever since, pushing through the grind of daily physiotherapy where progress is measured in small increments.
“There were definitely some low points. It’s a very long and slow process. It takes sometimes working for three weeks to get an extra flicker in a muscle… making a toe move upwards,” he says. “My physio said that often people give up at this point.”
De Nobrega, a man who worked out daily, often twice a day, who joined the job at age 41, has chosen to keep pushing.
Within 10 months of surgery, he was back at work, two days a week, working as the School Crossing Guard Coordinator. After a month he got cleared to begin working three days a week.
“I’ve always been lucky in that, when a job had run its course, I was able to move on. I thought becoming a Toronto police officer was a good fit because there are so many different jobs,” he says. “Even now, I was able to come back into several different jobs.”
He says he has been supported by Medical Advisory Services and Service members from fellow Constables to Superintendent Neil Corrigan at 14 Division in returning to work.
It’s still bittersweet being back, seeing what he’s not able to do.
“I felt like the job had been taken away from me and the sooner I got back the better it was,” says De Nobrega, noting statistics he read pointed out that people who didn’t go back to work within a year were unlikely to do so . “There are some times I’ll hear a call on the radio and I want to go. I felt like I didn’t get enough time. I was told I took to the job like a duck to water. I thought it would be amazing but it was so much better than I thought it would be.”
He mentions the adrenaline-fueled foot pursuit, when he chased down a stabbing suspect ahead of the scout car near College St. and Bathurst St., to speaking to people he would never have had an opportunity to do so.
“I really felt there were a lot of times I was able to help,” says De Nobrega, who enjoyed racing to a scene, just as he did giving support to the many marginalized people in the city. “As much as the action parts, I just enjoyed talking to people. I tried to empathize as much as possible with people.”
He now has learned to empathize with people with disabilities, navigating the city much of the time in a wheelchair.
“I always thought being in a wheelchair would suck, but it sucks so much worse than I thought,” he says. What was a five-minute walk for him has turned into a 30-minute slog through snow when going to an appointment this winter. “So many people just get stuck at home.”
He now works three days a week, weaving in workouts and navigating the office on trekking poles.
Staff Sergeant Tam Bui said there is less grumbling about everyday problems with De Nobrega in the office and, alongside him, in the gym where he dives into his physio exercises.
“He’s a fighter. You see that fighting attitude every day when he’s wobbling around using trekking poles. It would be much easier for him to shout to someone to bring something over or wheel over in a chair but he chooses to get up on those poles,” says Bui, who welcomed De Nobrega back to work along with unit commander Superintendent Neil Corrigan.
At their Christmas party, Bui tacked achievements to the wall to demonstrate to families of officers some of the good work they do on a daily basis. De Nobrega’s entry, noting he passed his fitness pin test handily, left many readers with tears in their eyes.
“It’s been a humbling experience, as an able-bodied person, watching someone get to work in a wheelchair, do their job, then go to physiotherapy each day. I have a lot of admiration for the positive attitude he has maintained. It’s good for our morale and it helps his recovery.”
De Nobrega has now reached a new goal, being transferred to the Toronto Police College where he has joined the Learning Development and Standards Section.
“I wanted to make myself more valuable to the Service and take more control of my own rehab and being at the college facilitates both of these near-future goals,” says De Nobrega.
That fighting spirit has been part of his life for some time, dropping out of high school at age 18 to work a steady gig at a bar and taking up martial arts in his Christie and Dupont neighbourhood.
“I always thought I should be able to defend myself or fight if I needed to,” says De Nobrega. “I Iearned with martial arts it was easier to control my temper and I never felt I needed to fight. You get this confidence that you never really need to prove yourself.”
Constables Faizal Karmali and David Hopkinson are among the many police officers he trained with over the years, encouraging him to try policing.
It’s not surprising he was able to recover from his cancer, says Constable Hopkinson, who met the teenage De Nobrega at martial arts training. They talked about him becoming a police officer over the next two decades until he settled in Toronto after bouncing back and forth to Thailand to train and fight the best – competing for two world championships along the way.
“When people come to me and say ‘I want to be a police officer,’ I give them truth on what the job entails. Some are discouraged while it makes others more passionate about doing it,” says Hopkinson, noting he instructed De Nobrega he needed to complete his high school equivalency at 38, after dropping out to work, and get some experience volunteering. “He did everything he needed to do and came back to me. I’m proud to say that I handed him his badge at his graduation.”
Hopkinson said that passion and perseverance has made his battle against cancer winnable.
“He’s attacked that in the same way he set out being a police officer. The cards were stacked against him,” he said. “He never listened to it, dismissed it, did everything suggested he must do in order to recover and he stands unaided because of that dedication. You can’t become a champion without champ attitudes and work ethic. You must train and act better than all your competition every way. He carries that attitude into everything he does. I’m not surprised by the way he fought it or the outcome.”
At this point, De Nobrega has far exceeded expectations, completing his Ontario Police Fitness Award before the New Year, performing push-ups, sit-and-reach and core endurance testing as any other Service member. Instead of a run, he was assessed on a stationary bicycle reaching the heart rate needed to pass the test.
The Service’s Physical Fitness Coordinator, Tim Finlay, says there is no better example than De Nobrega to promote physical fitness.
“In my experience, I haven’t seen someone in Ed’s situation before make the leaps and bounds towards recovery as quickly as he has. He is a special person and so inspirational. With all of his challenges, if Ed can pass his Fitness Pin testing, I think that all Service members can do it,” says Finlay, believing it’s an inspiration to all Service members to attain the annual pin. “The best way to recover from any injury, illness, or challenge is to be in optimal shape before the injury or illness. In other words, maximize your physical fitness, health, and resiliency, now, so that if/when a life challenge comes your way, you are better prepared and equipped to deal with it and recover optimally.”
Finlay remembers De Nobrega bringing that passion and inspiring classmates as the oldest recruit in his class of 2015, scoring 98.5 out of 100 on his fitness test and, after injury, scoring a 93.5 on the current Fit Pin.
De Nobrega says his recovery is more than just hard work at the gym but inspiration from his friends and family – most notably his wife, Yoko, who put her plans to become a police officer on hold to care for him.
“My wife is like a superwoman. She has done everything for me, taking time off work and then going back and still making sure I was taken care of,” he says. “She is my rock.”
He says he was able to visualize his recovery and build himself up with positive self-talking – ‘I can do this.’
“The main thing is focusing on what I have and not what I’ve lost. There were a few times where I said ‘why me.’ I’m not going to be able to walk again, not going to be able to run. I’m very lucky I got so much movement back. I’m now able to drive again,” he says. “As long as you’re alive, you have a chance to do whatever you want.”