In the nearly 12 months since four rifle bullets ripped into his body, San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Deputy Alex Collins has seen an outpouring of support.
Restaurants and civic groups have raised money for his family and that of Detective Jeremiah MacKay, who was killed in the gunfight in the San Bernardino Mountains. Collins rode in the Victorville Christmas parade. Deputies had a barbecue for him at the station.
He even threw out the first pitch at an Angels game, noting that the ball made it to the plate despite the walker he used to make his way to the mound.
“He is an incredible role model,” San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon said of Collins. “He has made a heck of a recovery and is back to work.”
Behind all the accolades is a long, grueling course of treatment punctuated with pain. He was in a medically induced coma for nine days, underwent more than two dozen surgeries and had bone grafts taken from his hips to rebuild his jaw, a portion of his left arm and his left leg below the knee.
All this for a 27-year-old Yucaipa resident who was so convinced he was about to die at the time of the shooting on Feb. 12, 2013, that even as blood was pouring from his wounds, he reached inside his vest to get his iPhone so he could call his wife, Lila, and apologize for getting killed and leaving her to raise their 3-week-old son, Benjamin, by herself.
The phone had been shattered, taking a bullet that otherwise may have penetrated his chest. It may well have saved his life, he acknowledged.
A HAIL OF GUNFIRE
Collins, a six-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Department who had been living his dream to work as a patrol deputy, was an acting detective on the day of the mountain shootout with fugitive ex-Los Angeles policeman Christopher Dorner.
Collins and another deputy had just pulled up to an intersection in the San Bernardino Mountains when the first of several Christopher Dorner sightings was broadcast over the radio. Eventually, they and four other officers arrived at the cabin where the fugitive was holed up.
Collins walked up a driveway to the cabin into a hail of gunfire. Even after he was hit four times, the deputy remembers hearing as many as 30 more shots.
Collins’ head was tilted slightly downward, and the first bullet entered his face just below the left nostril, piercing his upper palate and exploding through the inside of his mouth, splitting his tongue and blowing out the right side of his jaw.
Another round pierced the outside of his left wrist and exited the inside of the arm.
Yet another round struck his left leg just below the outside of the knee and passed through the inside of the leg. It left his foot paralyzed for months, posing what in the end was one of the biggest obstacles to his return to work.
It took about 50 minutes from the time the gunfire erupted until Collins and MacKay could be evacuated by helicopter. Collins asked his rescuers to lay him face-down so he wouldn’t drown in his own blood.
Recalling that his two brothers, who work in the department, had warned him to be careful, Collins told a paramedic in the helicopter: “Give my badge to my wife and tell her I love her and tell my brothers I’m sorry.”
‘I’M NOT DEAD’
When the helicopter landed at Loma Linda University Medical Center, McMahon was waiting in the emergency room.
“I was thinking, ‘Is the sheriff really here? Am I dreaming?’ He came over and talked to me,” Collins said. “I told him that I was sorry for getting shot.”
It was at the hospital that Collins began thinking he would survive. “I made it this far, and I’m not dead,” he said he reasoned to himself.
The sheriff held his hand as medical personnel prepared to wheel him into surgery. He was placed in a medically induced coma and didn’t wake up for nine days.
“The day I finally start remembering stuff was the day of MacKay’s funeral,” Collins said. “It was on TV.”
That was the first he knew that MacKay, whom he had lain face-to-face with on the ground in front of the cabin, had died in the gunfire.
“It didn’t seem real,” he said.
Collins was in intensive care for a month, undergoing his first 20 surgeries and the temporary reconstruction of his face. Metal and other surgical materials stretched from the left side of his jaw clear around and up to his right ear.
“When I woke up they had wire around each tooth,” he said.
The bone grafts had already begun.
It was two to three weeks before he was well enough to be placed in a wheelchair and moved outside to see his son for the first time since the shooting.
“It was a big moment to see him,” Collins said.
A web of pins and metal braces were placed in and along his leg, extending it straight outward, with his paralyzed foot dangling at the end.
Then he moved to a rehabilitation hospital within the Loma Linda campus, where he underwent a week of mild exercises with a hand bike, and leg lifts.
FINALLY BACK HOME
When he returned home, five weeks after the shooting, family members had posted American flags for a quarter mile along the Yucaipa street where he lived.
Inside the home, his father and brothers had moved furniture from a ground-floor office to the garage, and his wife had a hospital bed moved into in the room. His brother Matt bought a 70-inch television and installed it in the living room.
Home Depot donated a special, high-seat toilet for the bathroom and Collins’ father removed the shower doors and installed rails.
“I laid in the bed and I could get in the wheelchair,” Collins said. “That was kind of like my day. I would sleep. I’d wake up. I would watch TV. I would just kind of sit there and try not to hurt.”
Showering was a tedious, painful process, he said, in which his arm and leg would have to be wrapped in large plastic bags to keep them dry and he would have to sit on a shower seat with his leg and arm extended.
There would be more short trips to the hospital for surgery and more physical therapy. The pain gradually subsided and the therapy gradually became more physically demanding.
At one point, he began outpatient physical therapy in Loma Linda, using a walker to move around but able to drive his car.
“That’s when I started focusing on coming back to work,” he said.
Therapists had him try to walk. Then to run. Then they too were ready for him to return to work.
“The whole time I wanted to come back,” he said in a confident tone. “I’m 26. This is all I ever wanted to do.”
BACK TO NORMALCY
On Sept. 30, more than seven months after the shooting, he returned to the Big Bear station. He was greeted by dignitaries, reporters and fellow officers who cooked him the barbecue.
“I think I took one report that day,” he said.
He worked in the station for about a week in the role of a detective — not on patrol but investigating crimes — before transferring to the sheriff’s headquarters in San Bernardino.
Now he is working as a detective on a specialized crime-fighting team whose casework is kept confidential.
He is feeling stronger day by day, he said, and there are no physical restrictions on his work.
Despite the devastating wound to his jaw, Collins’ face appears minimally scarred. He credits the skill of his surgeons, saying with a grin: “I look better now than I did before this happened.”
He has no nightmares about the shooting, he said, and no signs — as far as he know — of lingering emotional trauma.
“I just want to get back and have everything back to how it used to be, try to get back to normal,” Collins said. “Obviously, it is not going to be the same ever again with the loss of Jeremiah and everything that happened. That’s in the back of everyone’s head.”
His son, Benjamin, is too young to understand what happened, Collins said, but he plans to explain it to him when he’s older — perhaps about 10 years old. He wants to talk about how his fellow officers risked their lives to lay down cover fire and pull him from the line of fire. And how the public has showered him with love.
He wants to tell his son that not everyone hates cops. “There are a lot of people out there who love cops,” he said.
“I feel bad for my wife having to do all that stuff for me, and my brothers,” Collins said. “They’re always worrying about me.
“I just wanted to get back. I’m OK, I’m OK. I’m back.”