Nothing could stop NYPD officer Ross Dichter from reaching 20 years on the job without taking a sick day — not even the tongue cancer he developed because he worked at ground zero in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
“It was a goal I set,” Dichter said. “I wanted to go 20 years without ever calling out sick. I just made it to work and just kept going in.”
Dichter’s dedication did not go unnoticed. On Jan. 29, New York City Police Commissioner Dermot Shea surprised Dichter by promoting him to detective in Shea’s annual State of the NYPD address at the Police Breakfast at the Pierre Hotel, before an audience of law enforcement, government and business officials. Dichter, a lifelong Lynbrook resident, has been a member of the NYPD since July 1999, and has served as the crime analysis officer for the 20th Precinct since 2003.
Dichter, 45, was asked to videoconference into the ceremony from his Lynbrook home, and was told that he would be recognized for continuing to work from home despite his illness. During the conference, Shea praised Dichter as the person most familiar with crime statistics in the 20th Precinct, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, but Dichter was stumped when the commissioner asked him the relevance of the numbers 70 and 46.
“I started to sweat, and I had no idea,” Dichter recalled. “I was embarrassed that I was talking to the police commissioner and I didn’t know what those numbers represented. And that’s when he came back and said, ‘That’s your new detective shield number, 7046,’ which shocked me.”
It was an especially proud moment for Dichter because he and his wife, Karen, decided to keep their children, Michael, 15, Emma, 13, and Benjamin, 9, home from school so they could watch their father being recognized. Little did they know that the honor included a promotion.
“I was completely shocked. We were all just so shocked,” Karen said. “It was very emotional. This whole experience has been an emotional roller coaster, and it was so exciting, and we’re just so proud of him and just so thankful that the commissioner recognized him in that way.” She added that her husband is a role model for their children because his effort teaches them to keep working no matter what obstacles they face.
The couple met at Lynbrook High School, from which Dichter graduated in 1993. He went on to SUNY Cobleskill, and entered the NYPD police academy in 1999. As the 20th Precinct’s crime analysis officer, he combs through reports, looks for crime patterns and trends, and communicates constantly with his commanding officer and patrol officers.
Everything changed for Dichter and his family, however, last Feb. 13, when he was diagnosed with tongue cancer related to his work at ground zero. On March 14, he underwent his first surgery. Doctors removed a cancerous growth from his tongue and 25 lymph nodes from his neck. At that point, Dichter had 19½ years on the job, and his goal of making it to 20 without taking a sick day was in jeopardy. As he recovered from surgery, Dichter took his remaining personal days, but he was back at work two weeks later. When he had his five-month check-up on Aug. 20, doctors discovered that the cancer had spread to his lower neck, which required another surgery. On Oct. 9, doctors removed his jugular vein and parts of his tongue, and operated on his neck again.
Dichter was told that he had to undergo radiation and chemotherapy and could not return to work. Though he had the option to take sick leave or retire, he said, he was determined to keep working. He obtained a secure department laptop that enables him to log on to the department’s network from home so he can read reports as though he were sitting at his desk at work.
“I’m doing this on my own time,” he said. “I enjoy this. This is something that I love to do. This is what’s keeping my brain fresh, keeping me active and keeping me part of the 20th Precinct community. It’s helping me fight the time away. Just because I got sick and got cancer, I’m not going to stop what I’m doing.”
Dichter said that being a police officer wasn’t always his goal. He took the city police test on a whim with his friend Ryan Levine in 1997. When he got the call two years later and joined the force, he quickly fell in love with the position, and even when he was hit with various illnesses over the years, he still found a way to get to work.
Dichter had just over two years on the job when terrorists slammed two jetliners into the World Trade Center. He was off that day, but he and a fellow officer raced to the city to assist in the recovery effort. From the immediate days after 9/11 through December 2001, he spent six days a week at ground zero.
It was those long hours spent amid the rubble that eventually led to his cancer diagnosis. Every Monday, he receives eight-hour treatments at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. He often brings his work laptop with him so he can read reports and send emails while he’s being treated.
Dichter said he was grateful for the way the officers in the 20th Precinct have supported and stayed in contact with him, and to the commissioner for promoting him. He also praised the World Trade Center Health Program at Mount Sinai, saying he was hopeful that he would beat his illness.
“I just have to keep doing my chemotherapy, praying and hoping that my cancer stops spreading,” he said. “I will be OK.”