Sunday, July 12, 2009

Officer's recovery beat the odds


A dispute had broken out over pizza, but that's not what the man at the small white house in west Wichita was interested in discussing with Officer Derek Purcell. "Oh yeah, I saw a police shoot-out in the front yard," he told Purcell. "I saw a police officer laying on the ground. I didn't know he was shot, and I didn't know who he was, but I saw it."

Purcell turned to the officer working the call with him and said, "Did you hear this? This guy says a police officer was shot right here in front of his house, like six months ago. Can you believe that?"

Purcell wasn't really surprised: He was the officer.

A routine stop to talk to a "suspicious character" became a desperate fight for life last July 11 after Purcell was shot twice. One of the bullets shredded the femoral artery in Purcell's right leg, and he nearly bled to death.

The shooting comes up almost every time Purcell gets together with friends on the police force, and he has had many late-night talks with his mother, Monica, over the past several months.

"He's always known how precious life is, but I think he appreciates it now more than ever," Monica Purcell said. "He knows how blessed he is to still be alive."

The road back

Derek Purcell defied tremendous odds simply by surviving that night. Doctors have told him that he was less than a minute from dying by the time he reached Via Christi Regional Medical Center-St. Francis Campus.

He has continued to exceed expectations during his recovery.

Before he was shot, he had begun lifting weights to bulk up and get into better shape.

When he graduated from the training academy late in 2005, he carried 160 pounds on his 5-foot-10-inch frame. He quickly learned a basic rule of the streets: Because he was so small, anytime someone felt like fighting with a crowd of police, they went after the smallest officer. That was usually him.

"I got tired of it," he said.

On the day he was shot, he weighed 205 pounds and could bench-press 315 pounds. Doctors told him his conditioning was a key reason he survived.

Quitting law enforcement never seriously entered Purcell's mind. Except for a brief stint in a Catholic seminary to see whether God was calling him to be a priest, all he has ever wanted to be is a cop.

Within a few months of the shooting, he was cleared to return to desk duty. By January, he was given approval to go back on patrol.

He was assigned a partner for two weeks, "just to make sure I was mentally ready" to return to street duty, Purcell said.

On their first night out, they were sent to the house on Maple.

"My first night out," Purcell said, shaking his head. "Can you believe it?"

Wanting to keep the focus on the pizza dispute, Purcell didn't tell the man he was the officer who had been shot.

"It was kind of funny hearing somebody talk about you in third person," he said.

Retracing his steps

Nightmares are common, Purcell said. Often, they are the same one:

He's sent to a house with another officer to talk to a man acting suspiciously in a room. Suddenly, the man starts shooting.

Purcell is hit once. He returns fire, shooting again and again and again. But the suspect just turns around and walks away.

Purcell is left standing there, knowing he's going to die because his wound is in a location "where there's nothing you can do, and there's just that helpless feeling in your gut."

He doesn't need a psychologist to tell him where those dreams come from.

A few weeks ago, he made it a point to retrace his steps on that fateful evening.

"Everything looks exactly the same as it was that night," he said.

That night, a woman called 911 shortly before 11:20 p.m. to report a man behaving suspiciously in the 500 block of South Richmond. Purcell quietly trolled the streets next to Richmond and talked to residents of the neighborhood near Friends University.

He found nothing, and radioed that to a dispatcher. Someone had been breaking into cars near Friends, so he drove east to see whether he could spot suspicious activity.

As he drove east on Maple from Meridian at 11:30 p.m., he spotted a man walking east on the north side of the street.

White shirt. Blue jeans. A haircut that could be mistaken for a black stocking cap.

"I was already past him when I realized that was the description given by the caller" on South Richmond, Purcell said as he drove past the location recently.

He turned his patrol car around, parked next to the curb at St. Clair and flipped on the car's red-blue flashing lights. The man on the sidewalk kept walking, his face down.

Purcell clicked on his flashlight, walked to the back of his patrol car and said "Hey" to get the man's attention.

"I just wanted to ask him a few questions," Purcell said.

Without a word, police say Francisco Aguilar spun around and fired twice.

In that moment, Purcell said, time seemed to slow. He saw the muzzle of the gun flash two times.

The first shot hit him in the left hip. It felt, he said, like someone clubbed him with a baseball bat. The second shot struck him in the lower right groin, slicing his femoral artery and lodging in his pelvic bone.

"It sounded like a twig snapping," he later said.

The force of the second shot was so powerful that it bent Purcell over for a second and he dropped his flashlight. By the time he straightened up and returned fire, Aguilar, 26, was running between houses on the north side of Maple.

Purcell fired four shots, but they all missed. One of the shots grazed a tree. The scar is visible in the bark a year later.

He went between the houses where Aguilar ran, but his leg gave out. That, he said, is when he realized he was more seriously wounded than he thought.

Bleeding profusely, he radioed for help and hobbled back toward the street. In hindsight, he said, making it to the street was critical to his survival.

"It's so dark there" because so many mature trees line the street and yards, he said. If he had collapsed in a backyard, he said, "They would have never found me in time."

Police say Aguilar committed suicide later that night as officers closed in on him a half-mile from where the shooting occurred.

Daily reminders

Purcell is reminded of the shooting every day.

"I've got a big ol' scar on my leg" from surgery, he said. "And on the other leg I've got the entrance and exit wounds from the other bullet. You step into the shower and you know. You can't not see it."

The damage to Purcell's right leg was so severe that he had to learn to walk again. His personal physician recently told him that post-operative notes indicated that the surgeons who saved his life were not confident Purcell would be able to keep his leg.

"There was so much that could have gone wrong that didn't," Purcell said.

He works out nearly every day to strengthen his leg and fine-tune his conditioning. If he goes even a few days without working out, he said, he can feel his leg weakening.

"Some of the muscles in my leg are gone," he said. "Because of the nerve damage from the shooting, they just atrophied and they're gone."

He used to run three miles a day. Now it's hard for him to run half a mile.

"My leg just gets tired, and I can't push it forward," he said.

Before he was shot, Purcell liked to make fun of older officers when they talked about aches and pains.

"Now I've got them, and I'm 25," he said. "I keep my mouth shut now."

But he says he has caught every suspect he has had to chase, and he's able to handle all the physical demands of being a police officer.

It's just harder to do now.

'Keeps you safe'

He's a different officer in other ways, too.

"You're just more aware of things you never really saw before," Purcell said. "When you approach people, the first thing I want to do is see their hands. You're trained for that, but it's even more so after it's gone wrong on you one time."

That's a common — and wise — reaction for law enforcement officers who have been wounded, said Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams.

He has been shot three times in the line of duty, including twice by a gunman at the Institute of Logopedics in 1980.

"That was one of the first things that became a priority once I came back" on duty, Williams said. "If I don't see their hands, I'm a lot quicker to take action.

"If a person doesn't want to show their hands, you know that concealed hands have the potential to conceal weapons. I'm constantly looking at a person's hands."

It's good that Purcell remembers the shooting every day, Williams said.

"That experience keeps you safe,'' he said. "It elevates your awareness in dealing with people in general and suspects in particular."

The law enforcement training center focuses a lot of attention on what cadets should do if they or their partner are attacked.

"It has made the difference between life and death," Williams said. "The training that I went through allowed me to react the way I did."

Purcell has spoken three times about the incident to cadets going through training at the law enforcement academy.

"I just hope the other officers get something out of it," he said. "If something good can come from it, I hope it does."

The night he was shot is a case study on why every call needs to be taken seriously, he said.

"That guy was just walking down the street," Purcell said. "He matched the description of a suspicious character. As officers, we probably do that 10 times a night.

"He turned around and started shooting. It can go to hell that fast."

An inspiration

Purcell said he has pulled his service revolver many times since he returned to patrol duty, but he has not fired it.

Not long ago, he called his mother early one morning to tell her he had recovered a gun from a suspect that was just like the one used to shoot him.

He was excited and happy that he was able to find and confiscate the gun. Monica Purcell was horrified.

"I didn't get back to sleep the rest of the night," she said.

But that's how it is when a loved one is in law enforcement, she said, and her son loves what he's doing.

He has always had a pleasant personality, she said, but since the shooting he seems more patient and kind — even on duty.

"I'd like to think I'm a better police officer now, but I don't know," Derek Purcell said. "My boss can tell you whether I'm better or not."

Though he may not realize it, a lot of people are paying attention to him — from his fellow officers on the street to officials in the highest levels of the department, said Capt. Max Tenbrook, a supervisor overseeing the Patrol West Bureau, where Purcell works.

"The way he has responded, he's shown a lot of class, a lot of character, a lot of courage — and people respond to that," Tenbrook said. "It is inspiring."

Yet that can only take you so far, Purcell said. He is already mapping out a strategy for the day his body tells him it just can't handle the physical demands of patrol duty.

He hopes to become a sergeant so he can work with younger officers in much the same way a pair of sergeants he admires molded him.

But he knows that's not a given. His supervisors will ultimately determine whether he is fit for that kind of work.

"There might come a day that I just can't be a police officer," Purcell said. "That's going to be hard.

"I doubt that I'm going to find anything else like this. I love it."


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