Noel Raufaste is stuck.
He’s trying to remember the name of a supervisor whom he worked for months ago when he returned to light duty with the Harford County Sheriff’s Office after suffering a major stroke. Watching him, it’s clear that he knows who he’s talking about, can probably picture the person and has their name in his mind, but it’s not coming out.
“All the names used to be so simple, now I can’t…” he says, trailing off. “It’ll come.”
It’s one of the subtle clues to the medical emergency Raufaste, a sergeant in the Northern Precinct, suffered while on duty on May 10, 2012. Despite a bleak initial prognosis, in the year and a half since his stroke Raufaste has recovered enough to drive a car, live on his own, and take bike rides of 60 or 70 miles.
But as his momentary lapse betrays, his recovery is not complete. Though he returned to light clerical work and office duties for several months, a medical evaluation earlier this summer found Raufaste was not capable of fulfilling the duties of a law enforcement officer. He had little choice but to accept disability retirement at a state-determined 40 percent of his previous pay.
“Accept” might not be the right term, however. In an extended interview with The Dagger in late October, Raufaste said he believes his condition is improving and strongly hopes to return to service one day.
Raufaste, 40, originally hails from Kensington in Montgomery County but spent several years in the Midwest attending Iowa State University and working as a police officer in Story County, Iowa. He eventually moved back to Maryland and joined the Harford County Sheriff’s Office in October 2002, rising through the ranks to become a sergeant in the Northern Precinct.
“He was an outstanding cop, an outstanding supervisor,” Sheriff Jesse Bane said. “He was a rising star in the agency.”
It was in that capacity that Raufaste reported for his shift on the afternoon of May 10, 2012. Though he was not feeling well for most of that morning, Raufaste said he was the only sergeant scheduled to work that shift in his precinct, while one or two others were also scheduled for the following day.
“I thought it was a flu, I felt terrible the whole day,” he said. “I thought, ‘oh man, just get through today, and take tomorrow off.’”
Another warning sign came when Raufaste said it took several tries to punch in a simple-four digit code on a building keypad, but thought perhaps a button on the keypad was stuck.
Shortly after the shift began, Raufaste parked his patrol car outside the current home of Forest Hill Nature Preschool on Bynum Road in Rock Spring and ran radar on passing cars, looking for speeders above 50 mph in the 30 mph zone. Raufaste was in position between 10 and 15 minutes and had yet to stop anyone when he said he suddenly slumped over in his patrol car.
“I thought this was it and I was going to die,” he said, “and I was okay with that. Some people have trouble with that.”
The cliché would have Raufaste waking up in the hospital, but the reality was worse. Instead, he returned to consciousness several times in his vehicle–a consciousness hampered by the fact that he could no longer vocalize or move correctly. Though Sheriff’s Office vehicles come with a “panic” button on the dashboard-mounted radio, Raufaste couldn’t reach it. Instead, he said he attempted to key his lapel-mounted radio from time to time as he faded in and out of awareness.
“I hit it a couple times and forgot about it. I woke up a little later, and would try it again,” Raufaste said. He notes that he does not know how many times he may have keyed his radio, only that he was not repeatedly triggering it, or attempting any kind of pattern or Morse code.
Harford County Emergency Operations Center radio logs between 4 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on May 10, 2012 obtained by The Dagger through a Maryland Public Information Request did not include any communications between dispatchers and Raufaste. The audio turned over to The Dagger did not cover that entire time period and included only actual verbal communications compiled by EOC data specialists.
However, Bane said that it is “not unusual” that the occasional odd keying of a radio would go unanswered by dispatchers.
Raufaste estimates that he remained undiscovered in his car for about three hours, from approximately 5 p.m. until 8 p.m. that evening. He was eventually located by a fellow deputy, though Bane said he did not know exactly what triggered the search for the sergeant, and Raufaste himself was likewise uncertain. The stricken deputy was transported by ambulance to Upper Chesapeake Memorial Hospital, and airlifted from there to the University of Maryland R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center.
Throughout the trip, Raufaste said he remained conscious and generally aware of his surroundings, but remained unable to communicate.
“I could understand just fine, but my ability to communicate was zero,” he said. “I could see the words formed perfectly in my mind, but my mouth wasn’t connecting.”
According to doctors at both hospitals, Raufaste’s initial prognosis was bleak, Bane said. The sergeant remained in the hospital for five or six days before being moved to MedStar Good Samaritan Hospital in Towson for further treatment. He stayed there for approximately two weeks, until he was released to outpatient care near his parents’ home in Abington, Pa. He remained there through the summer, undergoing physical therapy twice a week and speech therapy three times a week.
Initially confined to a wheelchair, Raufaste said he was walking within two weeks of his stroke, and swiftly regained his physical capabilities as the weeks passed. By the end of August, he was ready to return to his Aberdeen home.
During that summer, Sheriff’s Office brass offered Raufaste the chance to return to service in some capacity, including Capt. Keith Warner.
“He said, ‘any day you feel ready to go, you can start,’” Raufaste said.
That day came in mid-October, when Raufaste began assisting Warner with simple tasks around the office. After a few weeks, he was moved to help out the agency’s Criminal Investigations Division, before finally being assigned to the Central Records unit, where he reviewed written reports submitted by deputies. He stayed there from mid-December through this summer.
But as the months wore on, Bane and other agency leaders were faced with a difficult decision: though Raufaste had recovered enough to perform light duties, he was still not able to resume his job as a law enforcement officer and police supervisor.
According to Sheriff’s Office policy cited by Bane and agency spokesman Edward Hopkins, deputies are allowed to stay on light duty for a period of up to one year while they recover from a medical incident. For Raufaste, that clock began ticking on June 1, 2012. Bane said the deputy’s case was evaluated by the agency’s doctor several times, and the one-year deadline was extended through this summer while a final decision was made. Eventually, the sheriff determined that Raufaste would not be able to return to his duties.
Effective Sept. 1, Sgt. Noel Raufaste retired from the Harford County Sheriff’s Office under the “ordinary disability retirement” provision of the state’s Law Enforcement Officer Pension System. Under a formula devised by the state, he would receive 40 percent of his pay, or approximately $2,500 per month.
“The sheriff said, ‘you’re retired,’” Raufaste said. “It wasn’t me. I’d have stayed there, and kept trying to get better.”
Several times over the course of an hour-long interview in late October regarding Raufaste’s case, Bane said he regretted the decision, but that it was clear that the sergeant would not be able to continue as a law enforcement officer at that time. He declined to specify whether that determination was based on Raufaste’s physical or mental capabilities, or some combination of both.
“I can’t hold onto anyone forever,” Bane said. “They’re hired to do a job, and they know when they do that job…they may become unable to fulfill their duties.”
“If there was any way I could have kept him, I would have,” he said.
According to the Harford County Law Department, Raufaste’s retirement fell under the State Law Enforcement Officer’s Pension Plan rather than the Sheriff’s Office Pension Plan, which would have provided a 66 and two-thirds percent payout. Sheriff’s Office deputies moved to the state plan in 2006 after their union felt it had more attractive features, the county law department said via spokeswoman Sherrie Johnson; correctional officers could not be covered by the state plan and remained in the Sheriff’s Office plan.
Raufaste’s case sparked a joint investigation by the Sheriff’s Office and the county’s Emergency Operations Center to determine whether the sergeant might have been located sooner.
“I know they made changes, our people met with them, and everyone was satisfied with the changes made,” Bane said.
Chief among those changes, Bane said, was requiring supervisors on patrol to check in with dispatchers more frequently. The sheriff said supervisors began informally doing so as awareness of Raufaste’s incident spread.
Sheriff’s Office vehicles are equipped with an Automatic Vehicle Locator which can determine and track the geographic location of a vehicle; the system also enables dispatchers to determine the closest vehicle to an emergency call. According to a 2009 Sheriff’s Office policy, dispatchers are required to verify that the system is operational within the first 15 minutes of a vehicle entering service. Under the policy, the system is not to be used for routine monitoring of personnel by supervisors or dispatchers, but can be used to locate a vehicle if there is “credible evidence” that the vehicle operator is in danger or distress.
Hopkins said it was not clear whether the Emergency Operations Center has a companion policy, or whether the AVL was used to locate Raufaste at any point before or after his medical emergency. Department of Emergency Services spokesman Bob Thomas said no such policy was in place for that department.
“I think the only leak in the dike here was not requiring supervisors to report in with any frequency, and that’s not uncommon in public safety,” Bane said. “It kind of slows down operators when you have to have supervisors checking in, but that’s what that incident showed us had to happen.”
For his part, Raufaste said he does not place any blame the Emergency Operations Center or their dispatchers, and said the length of time between his stroke and when medical aid arrived did not worsen his condition.
“Not at all, I’m not upset with them at all,” he said. “They do a great job.”
Since leaving the Sheriff’s Office, Raufaste said he has ceased therapy appointments due to the cost, but believes he’s still improving. Despite releasing Raufaste from duty, Bane said he has been stunned by his former sergeant recovering to the point where there was even a question of his possibly returning to duty.
“I thought, when I went to the hospital, I didn’t have much hope for him at all based on what the doctors were telling me, of even being able to motivate again,” Bane said. “It was a very serious medical issue. I was amazed, I was told that would never happen.”
Bane said he would welcome Raufaste back if his medical condition improves enough to make it possible. Raufaste said he is eager to take the sheriff up on that offer.
“I’ll be fine eventually,” he said. “I’m not sure when it’ll be, six months, a year, more.”