By Cole Zercoe for PoliceOne
Harvey wasn’t Officer Norbert Ramon’s first rodeo. The Texas native and longtime LEO had faced Category 5s like Rita head-on and helped his state take in survivors in the aftermath of Katrina. He wasn’t nervous. Less than 24 hours before the hurricane made landfall in Houston, he was joking around with his partner. “It was pretty weather. We were saying, ‘Aw, nothing’s going to happen,’” Ramon said. “‘Tomorrow we’ll come in and they’ll let us go home.’”
He was ready. He’d done this before. But this time was different. As much as he kept it out of his mind, it was reality nonetheless: Ramon would brave the historic disaster while battling stage 4 colon cancer.
When Ramon left his home in the dead of night for his shift, the sheet of rain was so thick he could see it in the darkness. It was the beginning of a hurricane unlike any other he’d experienced. En route to his station downtown, Ramon was hit with a steady stream of headlights pointed in the opposite direction of the highway. He followed suit. A fellow HPD officer up the road gave him the news: the entire freeway was flooded; the path to downtown blocked. Ramon headed to the station just down the street from his house, Lake Patrol. Time to get to work.
A GENTLE GIANT
Despite his 24 years in law enforcement, Ramon, 55, initially graduated from college on a very different career path, majoring in accounting and information systems. It didn’t take long for the officer to realize programming wasn’t for him.
“I just happened to thumb through the paper and there was a big ad with George Foreman and it said ‘Be a Houston police officer.’ I sent an application in and lo and behold the next week they called me,” Ramon said.
The officer, who had no law enforcement family at the time, made a dramatic – perhaps surprising – career pivot. But he’s always had a passion to serve. Before college, he was in the Army, and his drive to help others made him a natural fit for policing. His wife of 13 years, Cindy, describes the soft-spoken man as a “gentle giant.”
“He’s a teddy bear,” Cindy said. “I laugh sometimes because if you look at him, he looks like he has this frown on his face. Then when you talk to him he’s one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. He’s just a gentle giant who enjoys helping people. You can always depend on him.”
Ramon has spent his entire career with the Houston PD – serving a range of roles including street patrol, field training, and traffic enforcement. He’s an outdoorsman, which was part of the appeal of donning the badge and uniform.
“That’s the thing that attracted us,” Cindy said. “We’re both outdoor people. Our passion is fishing, we do a lot of tournaments together. He loves being outdoors.”
Ramon also has a soft spot for kids, and saw policing as an opportunity to serve as a good example for them. Once, after responding to a domestic disturbance that required removing a child from the residence, Ramon took the child to eat on his own dime and stayed by the child’s side until transportation arrangements were made.
“He just loves kids. He melts when he sees them,” Cindy said. “He hates to see the children get caught up in domestic disputes.”
‘OUR LIFE CHANGED FOREVER’
During a colonoscopy at 53, Ramon received the news that would change his life forever. Still groggy from the procedure, doctors informed him that they had found cancer. Ramon was in shock. He had undergone another routine colonoscopy just three years prior and was cleared.
“I had no symptoms. I wasn’t sick, I was in the best shape of my life,” Ramon said. “I was seeing a nutritionist, eating right, running. I kept waking up in the morning thinking I was dreaming all of this – that I was having a bad nightmare.”
The following months were difficult for Ramon. Three weeks after the diagnosis, he underwent surgery to get his intestines re-sectioned and the tumor removed. He started chemo just a few weeks after.
“Trying to recover from that surgery and being pumped with chemo at the same time takes a toll on the body,” Cindy said. “It was a really difficult time for him, just feeling ill. He wanted to get to work bad.”
When finally returned to work, he suffered side effects from the chemo, including a bloody rash on his face that forced him off the street and onto desk duty.
“That drove him crazy. He’s not one to stare at four walls, it would get him depressed. He just wanted to be out there, helping people,” Cindy said.
‘YOU’VE NEVER SEEN SO MUCH WATER’
By the time Harvey hit, Ramon had healed enough to return to the streets. When he reported to Lake Patrol, his energy level was unusually high, and it wasn’t just the adrenaline. He’d skipped his chemo treatment the week prior because of a low platelet count. The break meant his strength had built up, but it also meant that conducting water rescues – already a health hazard for any cop – came at an even higher risk.
“I could have got an infection with that dirty water, but it didn’t even dawn on me,” Ramon said “I was so busy working. I wasn’t thinking about it at all – like I don’t even have cancer.”
Over three grueling days, Ramon saved hundreds from the floodwaters in a complex rescue operation. One of the biggest challenges was the boats they used. Designed for lakes, they required a substantial amount of water to launch.
“We’re out there trying to find somewhere where we can launch because you need at least two, three feet of water,” Ramon said. “And the trucks that we’re in sit low, so you can’t back in all the way without water getting in the truck. So we had to find a street, unhook the trailer, push the trailer all the way to the boat sitting in deep enough water, then push the trailer back, hook it to the truck. Trying to launch those boats and then recovering them took a lot of manpower.”
Battling through Harvey required an extraordinary level of endurance – much higher than previous hurricanes Ramon had faced. Its power was unrelenting.
“God, you’ve never seen so much water,” Ramon said. “It was nonstop rain. You never got a break. No relief.”
When Ramon and his team worked the neighborhood of Kingwood, they faced dangerous current. Boats were getting crushed against trees and there was no margin for error.
“As soon as we unloaded our boat we had to power it, because if not, you’re getting swept into a tree,” Ramon said. “One of the other boats hit that current and got swept and overturned. Six officers went overboard. So we lost one boat.”
Picking up flood victims wasn’t always easy. Some needed convincing before they were willing to evacuate.
“What was surprising is these apartments still had power, even the homes that were under water,” Ramon said. “So the people on the second and third floors, they were like, ‘We still have power, why should we leave?’ And then they’d ask me how much higher the water was going to get. The second time you came around, they usually changed their mind.”
Further complicating matters, Ramon had limited contact with Cindy, who watched as the next neighborhood over slowly flooded and water crept closer to their home. Luckily, it never got that far.
“I felt helpless because I couldn’t go over there to help, I just had to give advice over the phone,” Ramon said. “I had set a generator for my wife and then she lost power. I did a little video for her on how to start it, so she was able to fire it up.”
Through all of this, Ramon’s colleagues had no idea he was ill.
“The only one that knew was the sergeant in charge. He just asked me, ‘You good, you OK to go?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m ready.’ And we went from there. It was just back and forth going to these apartment complexes, loading up that boat, all day long,” Ramon said.
HOPE IN HOUSTON
The streets and sidewalks are littered with construction materials. Storage pods dot the neighborhoods. Three months after Harvey tore through Houston, the city – and Ramon – are pushing forward. Many of Ramon’s fellow LEOs lost their homes in the hurricane, and the devastation all around the city he’s worked in for so long has made the officer’s sense of duty – to serve, inspire, and rebuild – stronger than ever.
“He’s officer first, cancer second,” Cindy said. “He says, ‘I refuse to let cancer win here.’ I’m impressed and so amazed at the strength that he’s maintained. It’s been a battle. But he doesn’t want anybody giving him special privileges. During Harvey, he had every right to say, ‘I’m going to stay home.’ But he refused to stay home. He said, ‘I want to be out there, I want to be part of this, I need to help.’”
“I love what I do,” Ramon said. “It’s a different challenge every day; you meet all different types of people in all different types of situations. If I let the cancer dwell on me then it would eat me up mentally. So I just take it day by day. Keep going like I don’t even have it.”
Time to get to work.