Monday, September 26 , 2016, 2:16 am | Fair 62º

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Local News

Paula Lopez Returns to KEYT Newscast, Opens Up About Disappearance

TV anchor, who confirms medical issues had taken a toll, defends the law enforcement response and expresses gratitude for the 'unbelievable' support

A combination of working too much while neglecting medical issues — including pneumonia and dehydration — caused the deterioration of KEYT News anchor Paula Lopez’s health six weeks ago, according to the beloved local television personality.

In the first interview since her brief disappearance that launched an all-out search, Lopez on Monday opened up to Noozhawk about the circumstances surrounding the “medical condition” cited by her family, authorities and KEYT officials as what caused concern when she was reported missing on the morning of Feb. 27 and then returned home safely eight hours later.

Monday also marked Lopez’s long-anticipated return to the airwaves of the Central Coast’s ABC affiliate station, as she resumed her co-anchor duties alongside CJ Ward during the 6:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts.

Although she was mum on details during the broadcast, Lopez appeared to easily fall back into a natural flow with her news team, extending her thanks to viewers and colleagues.

“I’m extremely happy to be back today,” Lopez said earlier Monday, a wide grin forming on her face before more seriously addressing the response time of law enforcement when she had been reported missing after a mere 30 minutes.

Given the nature of her job, and that of her husband of 22 years, Superior Court Judge Frank Ochoa, Lopez said law enforcement officers are frequently patrolling in the foothills near her home west of Santa Barbara.

Lopez said that as recently as last weekend, additional patrols were sent to the couple’s Goleta home because of “threats” made to the family.

Although threats were not a factor in her disappearance, Lopez said, the response time was probably influenced because of that history.

“The public really doesn’t know the number of times our family has been under threat,” said Lopez, a 48-year-old mother of three. “I’m so grateful that the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department responded the way they did. … I’m really sorry to hear that they’ve been criticized for their response time. I’m also thankful that they have respected my family.”

Lopez said she had been out sick from work with pneumonia the week before her disappearance. Lopez, who said she is also diabetic, anchored the newscast during the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 24 — even though she felt ill and had been told by officials to take it easy — and then anchored once more that Monday before going home sick.

“There was a medical convergence of circumstances that I had neglected for a long time. … I’m not going to go into my medical conditions,” she said, noting that February is a big month for TV ratings. “Everybody really pulls together for that. My body just gave out.”

She confirmed information released by her family, explaining that medical issues prevented her from being able to speak during the disappearance.

Lopez said she is still adjusting to being part of the news, instead of merely reporting it, and has been extremely grateful for the “unbelievable” support she’s received from people around the world — many of whom she doesn’t even know.

Lopez is also grateful to her family at KEYT, which was purchased by Missouri-based News-Press & Gazette Co. last September, for allowing her to have time off to recharge while the station is in the middle of revamping its coverage and facilities.

On Monday, Lopez was busy getting caught up to speed on the long list of “exciting changes” that have been taking place in her absence, including last week’s switch to high-definition, the reopening of a Santa Maria bureau, replacement of all field equipment, refurbishment of the news set, and moves toward better accommodating mobile and online viewers.

KEYT News Director Jim Lemon said the station is glad to have Lopez back.

“First, we’re happy that Paula’s better,” he said Monday. “Second, we want to have our best people. It’s a big time of change for Channel 3.”

Lopez echoed Lemon’s enthusiasm, saying she wants to jump right back in.

“It’s really an exciting time for us and, I hope, the community,” she said. “I feel that I had a great break. I’ll be eternally grateful.”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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