|By Chris Maza|
WILBRAHAM – For police officers around the country, putting on the uniform and getting in a cruiser is just part of the daily routine.
But for Wilbraham Police Officer Chris Letendre, starting his shift on Aug. 5 was one of the most profound and meaningful moments of his life.
Letendre returned to work for the Police Department after recovering from his second bout with two types of cancer.
“To get back to work after being gone for so long and being alive, it’s just an unbelievable feeling,” he said. “I really shouldn’t be here right now. I’m so fortunate, so lucky and have a lot of people looking out for me and that’s an awesome feeling.”
Letendre received a warm welcome from the department during his return and later met with the Board of Selectmen, who also enthusiastically welcomed him back.
“It’s been great. I came back to work and was greeted with pretty much everybody from the Police Department and a lot of members of the Fire Department because I’ve gotten to know almost everybody over almost 18 years,” he said. “I was totally surprised. It was just an awesome feeling to have everybody there and making me feel welcome.”
In addition to town employees, Letendre said he already ran into members of the community who voiced their excitement in seeing him back on their streets.
“It’s great to be back. I’m seeing people in town already who are stopping to talk,” he said. “It’s nice to be out there and waving to everybody and being the same guy out there I’ve always been. I’ve always loved doing community policing, so it’s nice to be back and able to do that.”
Letendre battled T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma and leukemia for nearly three years. He was first diagnosed in January 2011 and after eight rounds of chemotherapy was in remission until April 2012 when the cancer resurfaced.
His second time around fighting the disease required a stem cell transplant from his brother followed by intensive radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
Because those procedures severely weakened his system, he received five blood and two platelet transfusions to rebuild immune system.
During that time, Letendre’s family was in danger of facing significant financial hardships because he was exhausting all of his paid time off.
The department and the town pulled together to ensure that didn’t happen. The Board of Selectmen allowed employees to pool paid time off to ensure the continued support for the family, something Police Chief Roger Tucker said epitomizes what being a member of the department means.
“People talk about the ‘Thin Blue Line,’ but it goes so far beyond that,” he said. “We work together everyday on nights, weekends, holidays. A lot of these guys socialize outside of work; their families know each other. When you have a situation like this where people went out of their way to help him so his family wouldn’t be financially strapped, it warms your heart.”
Letendre said he was blown away by the support he received and was appreciative of how it allowed his family to focus on getting him healthy again.
“I never would have had enough time to carry me through, so I’ve been fortunate to still get a paycheck every week,” he said. “It’s just huge to not have to worry about that in addition to fighting the cancer and trying to stay alive.”
In addition to the town’s support, East Longmeadow resident and friend Michael Cavanaugh rode in the PanMass Challenge in honor of Letendre, raising $8,100 toward the research performed by his doctor, Joseph Antin, to develop advancements for the treatment of bone marrow transplant patients.
Letendre will also have an opportunity to tell his story during the WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radio Telethon, which takes place on Aug. 27 and 28.
Letendre also said he was appreciative to the Board of Selectmen for allowing him to keep his job despite his lengthy absence, to which Chair James Thompson replied, “We know a good officer when we see one and you weren’t going to go anyplace. We wanted to make sure you stayed.”
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