(NewsNation) — Chicago Police Detective Sergeant Joaquin Mendoza says he knew he wanted to be an officer from the moment one came to speak to his class.
“When I got home that day, first thing my mom asks me is, ‘Hey, so what do you want to be when you grow up, for your career?’ I’m like, ‘I want to be a big Irish cop,”’ Det. Sgt. Mendoza told NewsNation. “And my mom said, ‘Well, the Irish ain’t happening, because you know me and your dad, we’re Mexican. The big, that’s probably not going to happen either, because neither one of us are big people. But if you study hard, and you do well in school, and you’re a good kid, then maybe you’ll get the chance to be a police officer.’ So I lucked out and got my dream job.”
Over his 22 years on the police force, he worked on some of the grisliest crimes, helping to solve the murder of Leticia Barrera. The pregnant mother of three was shot and killed in front of her house on Halloween day, while holding her little girl’s hand.
“When we got the convictions, if I only did one thing in my entire life, it was to put this guy in the joint,” said Mendoza. “The little kids just hugged us and thanked us for getting the bad guy … that made my entire career. Getting hugs from that little girl.”
When the pandemic hit, the city went on lockdown. First responders pulled long hours to keep the country running, and vaccines were still a long way off.
“Yes, everybody was getting sick at the time,” said Mendoza. “We lost several officers.”
At the end of a 17-day stretch and a 16-hour day, he wasn’t feeling well. He went home and took a nap.
“I thought I only slept a couple hours,” he said.
He slept for 48 hours straight. He was rushed to the hospital, where he waged a war with COVID-19 for 72 days. He suffered five strokes, lost function in both kidneys and the use of his left arm.
“A bunch of my partners ended up passing away from it. I think I got it pretty bad, but I’m lucky I’m still here,” he said.
Mendoza’s life was forever changed. He now undergoes dialysis three times a week, and will for the rest of his life. He uses a cane, and his balance and mobility are severely compromised. He suffers from debilitating neurological issues and a shortened life expectancy. He can no longer live independently.
When he went before the Policemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago for his act-of-duty disability pension, he was denied, because he couldn’t point to a particular “act of duty” during which he contracted the virus.
This decision came despite the fact that he got sick after working a 17-day stretch during the lockdown, and the only place he went other than work was home, where he lived alone.
The denial meant he would receive 50% of his salary for five years, and importantly, have no health coverage.
“Panic,” said Mendoza, recalling the denial. “All the years that you sacrificed and gave, and the benefits that you’ve actually earned, are going to be denied. That’s a tough pill to swallow.”
He says another Chicago police officer who was denied disability ended his life.
“In my mind, I was going through the checklist of what’s going to keep me from eating my gun,” he said. “I knew I had my sister, my mom, my nephew, my immediate family, my partners. Those are the things that kept me from killing myself.”
A Fight Unfolding in New York
Almost 800 miles away, Officer Omayra Feliciano served with the New York City Police Department for over 17 years.
“My father, he’s no longer with us, but he loved law enforcement,” Feliciano said. “I was third year in college, he was going through cancer and it was terminal. And at least before he passed, I was able to tell him, ‘Hey, I got into the academy.’”
Feliciano served in the Special Victims Unit. During the pandemic, she worked long hours and was tasked with coming face to face with 40 to 50 sex offenders a day, until she fell ill.
“I remember very clearly to this day, when I was sick, I was just coughing my lungs up. At the time, it was between day six and seven where people were really taking a turn for the worse and dying. That’s when you were seeing a lot of deaths. And I remember I was approaching that day, I was scared to death. I said, I’ll know this weekend, if I’m going to die or not.”
Feliciano said she got the vaccine within four days of it becoming available to officers, but that she didn’t know the virus was likely already in her body. She believed she contracted COVID from another officer who was confirmed to be sick in her unit.
The NYPD Medical Division gave her the diagnosis of COVID-19 pneumonia, which was followed by unrelenting body pain, deep fatigue and the onset of an autoimmune disease.
She says that on some days, “I can’t get up. I can’t get up out of either my couch or my bed. And it’s an excruciating pain that just doesn’t go away. Whatever I do, it’s an inflammation that is just screaming in your body and you can’t do anything about it. The person that I was before is never coming back. I will never be the same Omayra that I used to be.”
Legislation Changed in Chicago
Just last month, she was similarly denied duty disability.
“The ultimate decision was that they said I didn’t get COVID at work,” she said. “I proved everything I needed to prove, I provided everything I needed to provide. And they still said no.”
Along with her lawyer, Feliciano is fighting the ruling, hoping to get it in front of a judge.
“This should be an embarrassment to the city, it’s disgusting,” said her lawyer, Tim McEnaney. “It’s a disgusting thing to do to a first responder who’s put themselves on the line this way. It’s not right. It’s not fair. It’s one of the reasons the NYPD can’t keep their enrollment numbers up.”
Feliciano never imagined her time on the force would end this way, but she says she still feels she’s carrying on her father’s legacy with the fight ahead.
“I know my dad will be very, very proud and happy that I have not quit. He would be extremely happy that I didn’t give up on fighting for what’s right,” she said.
Officer Feliciano already has a victory to look to in Chicago, where Mendoza’s sister, Illinois State Comptroller Susana Mendoza, took up her brother’s fight.
“To see what he’s gone through, a guy who would never take a day off work, seems like he’s your Super Man, and then to see the struggles he goes through on a daily basis, it’s super emotional, it’s hard,” said Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza.
They initially tried to fight his individual denial of benefits in court, but ultimately helped push through a change to Illinois legislation for all first responders in the state.
“We appealed in the courts, like every normal person would do, and were denied for the same exact reason that the board stated,” said Comptroller Mendoza. “I wasn’t going to wait for more appeals and thousands of dollars trying to have the courts do the right thing. So that’s when I thought, I’m a former legislator, it’s what I’m really good at. Right? I love it. And when you see a problem, you have to fix it. And if no one’s going to fix it for me, then I’m going to fix it myself and use the power of the office that I have now to draw attention to this injustice.”
The new legislation established a presumption: first responders who became disabled from COVID-19 during the pandemic before the availability of vaccines did so in the line of duty.
“These are folks that are serving the public in a very, very dangerous position. And so no, they should not have to go out of their way to prove how they got it. If they got it, that is a factually provable thing. And that should be enough, they should have a rebuttable presumption that they contracted COVID while in the performance of an active duty,” said Comptroller Mendoza. “That is what our legislation changed to be the case now. Now, the board has to prove that that officer did not contract COVID while in the performance of an active duty.”
The legislation passed unanimously and with bipartisan support, 54-0. Comptroller Mendoza wonders if it can be a framework for states like New York.
She recalls a conversation she had with her brother on a particularly hard day, after dialysis treatment: “My brother said, ‘Why did it have to hit me this hard?’ And then he said, ‘Maybe it had to be this bad, because no one else has a sister who can change it, who can fix it, who can do something to make sure that it never happens again to any other officer. If it had to happen to me, so that none of my other guys have to go through this, then I’d have it happen to me all over again.”