How to pay forward a miracle

Photo of police officer consoling teen goes viral
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Photo of police officer consoling teen goes viral 02:12

Story highlights

  • A photo of Police Officer Tim Purdy talking things out with a potentially suicidal teen went viral
  • Martin Savidge says he discovered another moving story while reporting on the viral image

Martin Savidge is an anchor and correspondent for CNN based in Atlanta. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)Nine out of every 10 Americans believe in miracles. But only half seem to want to be a part of one. That's at least judging by the numbers for potential organ donors in the United States, where only about half of people are registered donors, despite the fact that each day in this country, 22 people die because the organs they need aren't available.

Of course, most of us know this, in principle at least. We know that if we don't volunteer to be donors that someone else could miss out on the gift of life. But sometimes it's hard to grasp the magnitude of how we could transform someone else's life because, well, we won't be there to see it.
    Martin Savidge-Profile-Image
    I get that. But what if I could tell you an incredible story, one that everyone should hear because it makes it clear what can happen if someone makes that decision to change the life of a person that they will never meet? Because I can, and while you may know some of this story already, you definitely don't know it all.
    By now you've probably seen the image. After all, it has been shared hundreds of thousands of times. A Charlotte police officer is ending a potentially deadly situation involving a troubled autistic teen with a history of violence. But he does so not with a gun or Taser or handcuffs. Instead, he gets on the ground, looking into the young man's eyes and talking.
    Even the officers who raced to the scene as back up realized it was a remarkable moment. One of them hurriedly captured it with his cell phone.
    It went viral.
    "Cop Uses Kindness to Disarm Danger" is a welcome headline at a time when there are so many other images out there of other outcomes, where police have used excessive force, sometimes with deadly consequences.
    But while this uplifting story is the one I went to Charlotte to cover, it's not the story I found there that left me wiping away tears in a parking lot and contemplating breaking the rules of journalism.
    I met the police officer who chose to talk rather than tase. And like most officers, 22-year veteran Officer Tim Purdy knows what it's like to deliver the worst news...a death notice. To watch the face of a family member contort and crumble in shock then dissolve into inconsolable grief. Purdy told me that's why he is divorced -- in his line of work, some things get carried home.
    But Purdy got a shock nine years ago when it was him who received a kind of death notice. But it wasn't about someone he loved, one of his children. It was about him -- he was dying. A disease had attacked his liver and there was nothing that could be done to stop it.
    To the surprise and agitation of his doctors, Purdy kept on putting on his uniform and climbing into his patrol car, even as he grew more and more ill. But one day, all alone in his cruiser, he told me he just couldn't take it anymore. He told me he put his head against his hands on the steering wheel and broke down, asking God, "Why?"
    The heavens didn't break out in a chorus of angels, nor did a ray of bright light fill the car. Purdy didn't get an answer. But the next day, he said he got another death notice. Only this time, because someone he didn't know had died. Purdy would get a new liver, and the transplant took place shortly after.
    Purdy was never told who died to save him. It's the rules of organ donation. But he would like to know. To find out, he first must formally write a letter. He told me that he has started that letter thousands of times, but never finished it. He says he worries it might reopen the deep wounds of grief for a family who after all this time may have partially healed.
    So I've decided I'll help out by drafting a letter for him, in the hope that maybe someone reading this will make the connection. Maybe you could do me a favor and share it around.
    Here goes ...
    To whom it may concern. I am so sorry for your loss. I cannot imagine your pain or how you found the courage to donate the gift of life at such a sorrowful time. And I do not wish to cause you renewed anguish. I just want you to know officer Purdy is grateful. And not just him. Because of what you did he lived. And nine years later was there to get on the ground in a parking lot and do something remarkable. (Please see the enclosed photo.) And please know that difficult day nearly a decade ago you saved more than just one life. Sincerely, Martin Savidge.
    As officer Purdy and I talked in that same parking where the viral video was recorded, I asked "Why did you get down on the ground?" I asked because mental health experts say it was the perfect approach. Anything else could have ended in disaster. I wanted to know if it was his training. No, he said it wasn't a tactic that came from some manual. He said it just came from within. A compassion born from all those distraught faces he can still see and from his own struggle with illness and doubt.
    And then it dawned on both of us ... Remember that question he asked, head down on the steering wheel, so long ago...?
    Officer Purdy got his answer. And thousands have seen the image to prove it.