Health Team

Houston police officer, battling cancer, helps save hundreds in Hurricane Harvey

As Hurricane Harvey punctuated its arrival with a seemingly never-ending deluge of rain, no one would have blamed Houston Police Officer Norbert Ramón if he chose to seek shelter.

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Stephanie Elam (CNN)
HOUSTON (CNN) — As Hurricane Harvey punctuated its arrival with a seemingly never-ending deluge of rain, no one would have blamed Houston Police Officer Norbert Ramón if he chose to seek shelter.

The soft-spoken 55-year-old is battling stage 4 colon cancer, and the disease has spread to his liver and lungs.

But as parts of Louisiana and Texas began to flood from Hurricane Harvey, Ramón couldn't stand the idea of not doing his job.

"Our oath is to go out and protect and serve other people," Ramón said. "You're always concerned about other people. You don't dwell on yourself."

He's an officer first

Ramón, after all, is not a man who gives up. When all the rain was making it impossible to find a way to his station downtown, he "(got) up on the curb just to make the turnaround and get back on the freeway," he recalled. He then drove to the one station he knew he could still reach: Lake Patrol, right on Lake Houston.

Ramón, who is in his 24th year on the force, contacted his sergeant and told him that's where he would be helping out.

For the month of August, Ramón had been on desk duty. While enduring chemotherapy every two weeks, he needed a break from the blistering Texas heat. But now it was the start of September and he was itching to get back outside. "(I'd) rather be out in the street," Ramón explained. "I enjoy being out there."

"Out there," in this case, meant out in the water. The officers took the boats normally used to patrol the lake and put them in the floodwaters above the now sunken streets. On the boats, they had to navigate around trees and cars that sat below the water's surface as they made their way to residents in need of rescue.

"Once we got there, then it was just normal work," Ramón said. "We were just working. We're loading people, getting them out." The people were taken to buses that took them to shelters.

Back and forth the officers navigated the murky water to rescue people. Amid the chaos, there were some images that Ramón won't forget.

"What sticks in my head is those children. I mean, you'd see different emotions. Some were, you know, scared. Some were excited. Some were happy," Ramón recalled, noting that there was often sadness in the adults' eyes. "There was a lot of people walking in the water. There were kids out there swimming."

Reason for concern

But there were risks. The water was full of bacteria, Ramón's platelet count was low and he was putting in long days. Working in 12-hour shifts, the officers were responding to an onslaught of calls from people who needed to be rescued from their flooded homes and apartments. Bayous snake throughout much of the Houston area. As these waterways overflowed their banks, the water had nowhere else to go but up, swiftly surging into neighborhoods and putting residents at risk.

Over three days, from sunrise to sunset, the entire unit pulled some 1,500 people to safety. Ramón estimates he helped rescue 200 or 300 people, maybe more. While all this was going on, Ramón's wife of 13 years, Cindy Ramón, was at home watching the water that had infiltrated their neighbors' yard creep closer to their property.

She kept track of the water and would text updates to her husband, who stayed at the police station in the midst of the flooding. Luckily, their home was spared. While Cindy was worried about their house, she was more concerned about her husband's health.

"I didn't know how it would affect him, but at the same token, I knew there was nothing I could say or do that was going to hold him back," Cindy said.

Houston Police Sgt. Epi Garza, who has known Ramón for about 15 years, was one of the first to learn of his cancer diagnosis. With Ramón now working from Lake Patrol, Garza felt somewhat responsible for him. "I knew that I had to monitor him, see for myself," Garza said. "At no time he showed me or the guys any types of signs that this disease was affecting his performance."

In fact, Ramón was not in any pain and he was comfortable even though he was soaking wet. The only thing bothering him was a blistery rash across his face, a side-effect from the chemotherapy.

'He's not looking for sympathy'

For boat rescues, Ramón was paired with Senior Police Officer Alvin Steelman, who had no idea Ramón is battling cancer. When the two met, they had to get straight to work; there was no time to get to know each other. But Steelman saw a man who was holding his own with all the other first responders.

"He's not looking for sympathy. He just wants to be part of the team and he was," Steelman said. "He's stepping up and just doing what's necessary to help someone else without even looking back. No hesitation at all, and I was pretty amazed by it."

Garza believes in some ways Hurricane Harvey brought Ramón some relief. "For three days of his life after being diagnosed, he was in a world where he didn't have to think about it," Garza said. "He was really happy being occupied knowing that he was doing something that was amazing, which was helping people."

Officer one day, cancer patient the next

Lake Patrol was in full-on rescue mode for three days, and a little bit of the fourth. On the fifth day, Ramón quietly slipped away. With the airports closed from Hurricane Harvey, he and his wife drove to Oklahoma so he could get chemotherapy.

"The only time it hits me, reality hits me, is when I have to leave ... and go get my chemo," Ramón said, getting emotional. "I'm out there on the street and then I got to leave half the day to go out there and do that." He pauses and takes a breath before continuing, "But as long as I'm with these guys, you know, they keep me up."

At 50 years old, Ramón had a colonoscopy. "They did find some polyps and they told me to come back in three years," Ramón said. "Came back in three years, no symptoms, just had a regular colonoscopy -- and they told me I had cancer."

That diagnosis in March 2016 was devastating; the cancer was already stage 4. Ramón immediately underwent surgery to remove part of his intestine and started chemotherapy two months later.

"There was no in between," he said, remembering how he was in the best shape of his life when he found out he was sick. "I [had] started seeing a nutritionist. I lost all this weight. I was running. I was down to like 7% body fat."

'It can be beat'

While he has been told he has about five years to live, he's using his platform to encourage other cancer patients to stay optimistic. "People have told me that they were diagnosed with just six months to live and now they're on their 19th year," Ramón said. "So I mean, it can be beat. You just got to figure out where to go and what to do."

For Ramón, that means spending time fishing with Cindy, talking about anything but cancer and, of course, continuing to work as a Houston police officer.

"As long as they put me on full duty and doctors say 'you can go out there,' I just want to be treated like I don't even have it," Ramón said, his voice just above a whisper. "Just a regular officer without cancer."

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