CHICAGO — During a September 2012 birthday trip to Six Flags Great America, Encarnacion Roldan started to feel woozy.
The 51-year-old had a ferocious cough and pain in his chest. And his fever would rise to 103 degrees before the night was over.
CT scans revealed strange masses in Roldan’s chest, lungs and stomach. Two months later, he was he was diagnosed with Peripheral T-Cell Lymphoma, a rare and “very aggressive” form of cancer.
Doctors told Roldan — a 28-year veteran of the Cook County Sheriff’s Department — that he needed a bone marrow transplant. No one in his family matched. To make matters worse, most people find matches among their own ethnic group, and few Latinos enroll in the national bone marrow registry.
“I didn’t know that it was difficult for the Latino population,” Roldan said. “When people like myself need something like that, it’s really hard to find somebody. I was amazed. … I was like, ‘Oh my God. That’s really sad.’”
According to the National Marrow Donor Program, there's a 72 percent chance Latinos will find a match. If a patient is white, that number jumps to 93 percent. For black patients, it drops to 66.
On Tuesday, the sheriff’s department — which boasts nearly 7,000 employees — will try to help Roldan by hosting three marrow donor registry drives:
• Daley Center, 50 W. Washington St., 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
• Cook County Criminal Courthouse, 26th and California, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
• Cook County Sheriff Department Police Headquarters, 1401 S. Maybrook Dr., Maywood, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Each is open to the public, and participation only requires “some quick paperwork and a cotton swab inside your cheek,” said Ben Breit, a department spokesman. “And you’re on your way.”
“Maybe this can save me,” Roldan said. “But even if they can’t find [a match] for me, maybe they’ll find one for someone else.”
From gang member to sergeant
Roldan was born in Manhattan, grew up in the Bronx and moved to Chicago when he was 12. Short on friends, he soon found himself involved with a gang.
At 17, Roldan took a summer job with the Boys and Girls Club of America, which he credits with saving his life. Fundraisers, field trips and mentorship programs “allowed me to get out of the neighborhood I was trapped in,” he said.
“If it wasn’t for [that summer job], I’d be dead right now, or possibly in prison. It made me realize the direction I was going in was a wrong direction.”
In the mid-1980s, a mentor recommended Roldan look into the Cook County Sheriff’s Department, which was hiring.
“There’s no doubt in my mind” that I picked the right career, Roldan said. “In the 28 years that I’ve worked for the Sheriff’s Department, I’ve never had two days exactly the same.”
The sergeant has served inside the jail, taught D.A.R.E. and G.R.E.A.T. drug-prevention programs and connected inmates to hospital care. He plans to rejoin his unit “when — not if” he’s better.
“He’s really hoping to hit his 30-year mark,” said Breit, who called Tuesday’s marrow registry drive unprecedented for the department.
“The stories have been rolling in” about Roldan, Breit said. “People can’t say enough about him. He runs a toy drive every Christmas for DCFS children. He’s active with the Special Olympics. Employee after employee just raves about him.”
Roldan currently lives in Logan Square with his 81-year-old mother, who recently underwent bypass surgery.
“We’re both in the house trying to help each other out as much as we can,” he said. Roldan is grateful, but not surprised, about the department support, which has included several fundraisers.
“For years, when I worked inside the jail, we were always like a family,” he said. “When an officer got sick, or they had a family member die, or they lost their house… we did fundraisers, or bought a card and did a collection.
“We have to help each other out. Who else do we have?”
Even though Roldan underwent chemotherapy on Monday, he plans to attend Tuesday’s drive at 26th and California.
“This experience has taught me quite a bit,” Roldan said. “You never know when you may need someone to be a match, or someone from your family might.”