A CHRISTMAS MIRACLE

“Re-printed with permission of the Gendarme Newspaper”.
by Jeff Roorda

December 5th was a hard day.

When word started to circulate that a police officer had been shot in the line of duty in Arnold, cops from all over the region started to converge on St. Anthony’s Medical Center.

There wasn’t much good news as officers from about a dozen agencies began to congregate in the large boardroom that the hospital made available for friends, family and co-workers. The officer had been shot in the back of the head and was rushed into emergency surgery.

As details began to emerge, the news was tough to swallow and hit particularly close to home for me. The Arnold Police Department was where I spent most of my police career, thirteen years. The chief is a friend. The commanders are friends. The old-timers that I worked with are friends as are many of the newer officers. Heck, my old partner from the detective bureau was the first officer on the scene of the shooting. It was hard to see my old comrades-in-arms going through what is without a doubt one of the worst days possible for any police department.

Even harder was the news that the officer who had been shot was Ryan O’Connor. I know Ryan a little bit but I know his wife, Barb, quite well. Barb is the president of the Police Wives Association and we work together closely all the time. Most often, we work together to provide assistance to spouses who are in the exact same life-altering position that Barb found herself in that day.

I knew the police wives would be in total shock with this tragedy impacting their own leader so I reached out to my counter-part with the St. Louis County Police Association, Business Manager Matt Crecelius, and he and I agreed that the police wives have been there for us so many times and it was time for us to be there for them. The SLCPA, the SLPOA and the Shield Of Hope (FOP Lodge 15’s charity) all came together to do for the wives what they usually do for others, things like arranging for food and beverages; interacting with hospital staff; talking to the media; and, so on.

Chief Ron Battelle and Chief Jim Silvernail from the BackStoppers showed-up right away as they always do and presented the family with a check for $5,000.00 from their catastrophic injury fund. Those are two of the sweetest, most compassionate men you’ll ever meet and having them in the room in times of tragedy always makes things a little easier.

Like the BackStoppers, the Shield Of Hope also provided the family with some money to address any immediate financial needs. In the days that followed, the Shield Of Hope raised tens of thousands more for the O’Connor family as the outpouring of support from the community took shape.

But, none of us were thinking much about finances as we waited out the five hour surgery hoping against hope for good news. You could tell from the expressionless faces around the room that there wasn’t much in the way of optimism about Ryan’s chances. Cops all know that getting shot in the head is really bad and getting shot in the back of the head is even worse. The chances of survival are slim at best.

Early on, the O’Connor family came in to address all the officers who had assembled at the hospital. When Ryan’s dad, longtime Maryland Heights Police Chief and former St. Louis Metropolitan police officer, Tom O’Connor, got done talking, there was barely a dry eye in the room. I’ve known Chief O’Connor for a long time and have always had a deep respect for him. But his resolve shone through that day in ways that are hard to imagine as he shepherded his family through this unthinkable calamity. Lt. Col. Mike Caruso and I had a chat a few days after Ryan was shot and he described Tom O’Connor – who had been Caruso’s dad’s partner decades earlier – as the toughest man he has ever known.

That trait is apparently hereditary because the first bit of welcomed news finally came, Ryan had survived the surgery. It seemed like it would take a miracle for even the toughest cop to make it through that surgery but Ryan demonstrated his grit as he fought for life.

The family asked all the officers present to line the hallway between the OR and the ICU as they wheeled Ryan from one to the other. That was difficult to watch. But, in a way, it was also uplifting to see the law enforcement community come together like that. Uniforms of every color and stripe flanked the hospital corridor in a moment that reaffirmed that, through all of our trials and tribulations, we are all still one big family.

While the fact that Ryan made it through surgery was well-received, the news wasn’t all good, not by any means. The neurosurgeon described to us the devastation done by the bullet in the starkest of terms. He was very careful not to give anybody in the room any false hope. If Ryan was to recover at all, it would be a long road to recovery and the extent of his recovery remained a big question mark.

But, still, he was alive and that gave Ryan a fighting chance.

Over the next couple of days, we did all we could to comfort the family with hospital visits and words of sympathy and encouragement. But Ryan’s condition was touch-and-go to say the least. The biggest concern, as with any injury of this nature, is intracranial pressure. The doctors had removed a piece of Ryan’s skull and implanted a stint to relieve some of the pressure. By Wednesday night, the pressure had reached critical levels. It was so bad that doctors decided they were going to induce a coma and the family had asked for a priest to come. If the pressure got much higher, all hope for recovery would be lost. The family knew that the priest might not be leaving the hospital room without administering last rites.

Then, as the priest prayed with the family and anointed Ryan with holy oil, something truly miraculous happened. Ryan’s intracranial pressure decreased dramatically just as the priest dabbed the oil on his forehead.

When Arnold Police Chief Bob Shockey told me the story, he was so choked up he could barely get the words out.

All I could say to Bob was a simple, rhetorical question, “Proof of God?”

I don’t know what else to call it,” Bob replied.

Chief Shockey isn’t a particularly religious guy. I try to get to church whenever I can but, the truth is, I’m not particularly religious either.

Most cops aren’t.

We see so many things every day that can be described more as “proof of evil” than “proof of God” that it’s hard to have faith. The sinister act of the depraved young man who decided to turn a gun on Officer O’Connor and then himself is proof enough that there is terrible, inconceivable evil in this world. We can all choose – particularly those of us who have worn the badge – to bear witness only to the evil that we are immersed in every day and decide that the unspeakable horrors that human beings inflict on one another is proof positive that there is no God in this world…no good in this world.

But that ignores the inescapable, existential paradox of the world we live in. There can be no summer without winter. There can be no day without night. There can be no good without evil. There can be no miracles without tragedies. And, there can be no heaven without hell.

If you need proof that there is something divine at work in the world we live in, you have to look for it in both the brightest ray of light and the darkest corner of night. For cops, we spend most of our time in those dark corners. But gaze across that cold, black, wintery wasteland in which we wander and you will see a lone, bright star glimmering off in the distance.

As we enter this season of miracles – the season where a new birth under a distant, bright star delivered us from evil – keep praying that miracles continue to visit the O’Connor family and all of the angels in blue who do good works in this world. The good works that cops do every day are proof enough of God for me.

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