Not many people can say they basically died and came back to life, but that’s how this story of perseverance begins: with a man who came back not once, not twice, but three times.
Sergio Lopez, a Harvard Extension School student, faced the trial of his life about six years ago. A Navy SEAL for 17 years, the Brooklyn native was set to be promoted to chief warrant officer 2 and to be honored by family and friends at a commissioning ceremony and reception at the SEAL Heritage Center in Virginia Beach, Va. During a routine physical on the day before the ceremony, Lopez, then 36, collapsed, suffering a major heart attack. He had a second on the way to the hospital, then a third on arrival. Doctors put his odds of survival at 50-50.
He woke from an induced coma two weeks later, having suffered anoxic brain damage, which occurs when the brain survives more than four minutes without oxygen. He remembered a doctor telling him that his career as a Navy SEAL was over. Barely able to speak, Lopez replied, “Sir, I’ll let you know when I am done being a SEAL.”
As he now recalls, it was a moment of truth. “They told me that they’d never seen anyone in a coma like that stand up so quickly,” Lopez, 41, said. “I was angry and scared at the same time. I wanted to rip the IV out of my arm because it was irritating me.”
He was in the hospital for eight long months, but his recovery took much longer, and a lot of soul-searching as well. “I had to relearn everything,” he recalled. “I couldn’t read — words looked jumbled — and I couldn’t spell, and I couldn’t drive. I was depressed and angry. I was on the top of the world — a Navy SEAL going to Harvard — and I couldn’t write my own name.”
Lopez had some dark moments. “I kept asking myself, ‘How could something like this happen to me?’ And I came to realize that this question was not allowing me to heal.”
That kind of grit and focus has marked Lopez’s life, from his childhood resolution to beat the odds and become a SEAL through his recovery and return to his unit until his retirement in November 2018. Now he is turning it toward earning a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts, with the goal of bringing his story to the world to demonstrate that even the worst trials can be overcome.