Video by Ned Brown/Harvard Staff

Campus & Community

A Navy SEAL who cheated death finds his voice

6 min read

Grit and determination fuels Extension School student Sergio Lopez’s recovery after three heart attacks in succession

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.

Former Navy SEAL and professor in classroom
Sergio Lopez (left) worked with Remo Airaldi to hone his public speaking skills. Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

To that end, he has worked with Remo Airaldi, on public speaking, which remains an obstacle for Lopez since he retains some speech dysarthria from his injury. The Extension School professor and student shared a mutual admiration. “Just look at him,” said Airaldi, who is also a lecturer in the College’s Theater, Dance & Media concentration. “He’s an amazing person. He had every reason to hide somewhere and crawl into a shell. When he talked to me about taking a public-speaking class, I was a little concerned; you have to put yourself out there and be present every week. But he told me what he wants to do with the rest of his life, which is to inspire people. He can tell you what a bawling mess I was in our last class together.”

Lopez feels that their work together has been invaluable. “I wanted to get my confidence back, and Airaldi was the man for that,” he said. “He helped me take it to the next level.” He also credited Airaldi with helping him get his spiritual priorities in order. “I remember Remo telling me something Buddha said, that holding onto anger is like holding onto a hot coal with the intention of throwing it at someone. You’re going to be the one that gets burned.”

Lopez’s family has a long history of military service, and he was just 8 years old when he resolved to join the SEALs. “My uncle was in the Navy in the 1980s,” he said, “and he told me, ‘If you really want to be a bad dude, you want to be a Navy SEAL.’ I did everything I could to make it happen. I became a Boy Scout, Sea Explorer, Sea Cadet. I became a lifeguard. I got my SCUBA certification; I did Junior ROTC in high school. The dream became an obsession, and the obsession became a reality.”

It’s not a dream that many get to realize. Lopez says the Navy recruits about 40,000 people every year, and about half of those express interest in becoming a SEAL. Only 6 percent make the cut. “You think you are prepared,” he said, “but when you show up, nothing can prepare you for the kick in the gut you are going to get.” He served in more than 25 countries and saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I am not finished healing. The goal is 100 percent. I know now the journey begins. Every time I come to Cambridge for class, it is an indescribable feeling of joy.”

Sergio Lopez

He took his first Harvard classes before the heart attacks, but during his recovery read something that strengthened his resolve to return to his studies: a profile of U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, a fellow military veteran who graduated with a degree from Harvard Extension School after losing both legs and part of his hand while deployed in Afghanistan. “I was so inspired by his perseverance,” said Lopez. “And I thought that if he could persevere through that, my heart attacks and brain injury were nothing.”

Lopez took a methodical approach to his planned return to Harvard classes. He retook the School’s test of critical reading and writing to give himself a good indicator of where his writing stood. He took a course at Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach, and came to campus for a cross-cultural expository writing course to feel a part of Harvard’s environment.

Lopez studied “Fundamentals of Academic Writing” in the 2017 January session with Rebecca Summerhays. After earning his first A in introductory psychology with Todd Farchione, he learned he was an official Harvard Extension School candidate. “I am not finished healing,” Lopez said. “The goal is 100 percent. I know now the journey begins. Every time I come to Cambridge for class, it is an indescribable feeling of joy.”

Lopez gave a well-received talk on campus during Veterans Day weekend last year and hopes there will be more of those speaking experiences in his future. “What happened to me was beyond crazy,” he said. “But I am alive. I am here. Everybody at some point faces a situation that is dark and heavy. They may feel that they can’t get out of it, but I want to help inspire people to see that anything is possible.”