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Once a fitness junkie, a Miami cop struggles to walk after brain surgery. How you can help

Miami cop recovering from brain surgery needs help

Miami Police Officer Joseph Flores, 27, is recovering from surgery for a brain tumor. A former fitness fanatic, Flores can now barely walk and talk. He needs financial assistance to help him continue physical rehabilitation.
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Miami Police Officer Joseph Flores, 27, is recovering from surgery for a brain tumor. A former fitness fanatic, Flores can now barely walk and talk. He needs financial assistance to help him continue physical rehabilitation.

Lean and wiry, Joseph Flores was a fitness junkie, pounding weights in Miami CrossFit classes. On the streets, he bounced off walls and did stunning back flips on city sidewalks in an acrobatic sport known as “hardcore free running.”

As a Miami cop, his physical prowess earned him honors as one of the department’s fittest officers.

But then came the skull-splitting headache. And the battery of medical tests. And the discovery of a golfball-size mass in his brain.

Nearly one year after surgeons removed a tumor from his skull, Flores can barely string together a few garbled sentences. His vision is out of whack — he sees double, his balance perpetually out of whack. He shuffles along with the gait of an elderly man, but he is only 27 years old.

“He’s frustrated because he used to be very active,” said his father, Eliel Flores, who must care for him around the clock. “Now, he’s got a 63-year-old man trying to assist him. Before he would run circles around me.”

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How to help: Wish Book is trying to help this family and hundreds of others in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.

It may be a long shot, but Joseph Flores’ goal is to one day regain enough of his strength and motor skills to return to police duty.

For now, he’s been helped by strenuous rehab at iAM ABLE, a West Kendall gym that specializes in helping people who have suffered paralysis and other traumatic injuries. But his health insurance does not cover sessions there, and although he’s had financial help from Miami’s Police Officers Assistance Trust, its donations to pay for the rehab will soon run out after December.

His family is hoping Wish Book readers will contribute to his rehab sessions.

Flores grew up in Southwest Miami-Dade, an energetic kid his parents called “Spiderman” because he was always “jumping up and down,” his father recalled. That energy spilled over to his time at Sunset High, where he did skateboarding, karate, and later free running, which is also called parkour, a sport in which participants run, flip and swing their way through urban environments. He also participated in American Ninja Warrior, a TV show that pits top athletes against a grueling obstacle course.

He worked for a few years doing security as a “court monitor” in Miami-Dade’s criminal court.

When he joined the police department, Flores spent the first four years on the midnight shift patrolling Little Haiti. He then spent six months assigned to do community policing in the Design District, forging relationships with business owners and residents while responding to everything from burglary to disturbance calls.

“I felt good about helping the community,” Flores said in halting speech.

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Miami Police Officer Joseph Flores, 27, is recovering from surgery for a brain tumor that has left him unable to return to his job.

Said Maj. Thomas Carroll, who was his commander in the city’s Upper Eastside: “Joseph is one of the kindest, gentlest human beings I’ve ever met. He was very passionate — he excelled at everything he did in the police department.”

But in January, Flores began suffering searing pain in his head. He believed it was a sinus headache. The pain would not stop with over-the-counter medication. Every time he sneezed, the pain shot through his head.

“That’s a pretty bad sign,” Eliel Flores recalled.

Flores eventually wound up at Jackson’s Ryder Trauma Center, where doctors told him his brain was swollen and bleeding. He needed surgery right away or would die.

“The day of his procedure, the chief of police and the command staff all showed up at the hospital and prayed over him,” said Miami Police Capt. Javier Ortiz, who rushed him to Ryder after a delay-filled admission at another hospital.

On Jan. 22, surgeons removed the mass in an agonizing 14-hour procedure. The procedure left Flores’ body ravaged. Over weeks in the hospital, fever wracked his body. He could only eat baby food — and he dropped down to only 136 pounds. A small stroke suffered during the surgery left Flores weakened so much that he was practically paralyzed on his left side.



He ended up undergoing radiation treatment too, losing his hair, his body further emaciated. About 40 police officers, including Chief Jorge Colina, showed up at the University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center to celebrate his final treatment.

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Since he had surgery to remove a brain tumor, Miami Police Officer Joseph Flores, 27, has been going to specialized rehab sessions, but his health insurance doesn’t cover the treatment.

Along the way, Miami police officers constantly visited him, bringing him food, guarding his room in a symbolic show of solidarity. They also donated one year’s worth of sick leave so that Flores could remain drawing a paycheck — and health benefits — while recovering. “He’s very well-liked by his peers,” Maj. Carroll said.

Whether Flores ever gets back to active duty may depend on his physical progress.

Relatives say his health insurance has been good, but doesn’t cover the specialized treatment at iAM ABLE, where trainers use intense exercises to rehabilitate people like Flores.

When Flores first showed up to the center over the summer, trainer Adam Boyette thought he was completely blind. “When he came in, he could barely walk by himself,” Boyette said. “He had to have hold someone’s arm or hand because he would lose his balance so fast.”

The double vision in his eye has thrown off his equilibrium. His body is still strong from years of exercise, but the strength is useless without the hand-eye coordination. Simple tasks, like putting toothpaste on his toothbrush, takes a frustratingly long time.

At the gym, Boyette challenges Flores with exercises that might have been a mere warmup one year ago. Flores stands on one leg, dips down a few inches and touches a chair. His arms outstretched, he lifts two small 4-pound weights in each hand simultaneously to test his coordination, grimacing when one falls from his grip.

He does a simple yoga pose known as the “bird dog” — on his hands and knees, he stretches out one arm, and the opposite leg.

“That was something he could only hold for two seconds until he fell,” Boyette said. “Now, he’s able to hold it as long as I tell him.”

Each visit costs $90. With the family still dealing with other medical bills, the progress may be lost.

“I have noticed a positive effect on him,” Eliel Flores said of the gym. “He’s getting back his confidence, as well as his mobility.”

How to help: Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook@MiamiHerald.com. (The most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans.) Read more at Miamiherald.com/wishbook .



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