AFTER A LONG DAY BOOKING BAD guys at the 84th Precinct in Brooklyn, N., all rookie cop Yolanda Lugo, 24, could think about was driving across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge to Staten Island and her bed at home. So she barely noticed when a guy in a small white car zipped by her on the upper deck of one of the world’s longest suspension bridges and pulled to a stop. It was only when she looked in the mirror and saw the driver get out and start climbing the abutment 200 feet above the road below that she realized something was wrong and stomped on the brakes.
After some fruitless shouted conversation with the distraught man, Lugo crawled up the steep concrete grade herself.
“You don’t understand problems,” he shouted.
“I’ve had problems,” she said. “Everyone has problems.”
“You’ve had problems? What kind have you ever had?”
“Cancer—in my heart, in my neck, my lungs, my liver and my stomach.”
Yolanda began to talk. He began to listen. And the unexpected sharing of problems proved to be a life-saver. Within minutes on that Tuesday night two weeks ago, the would-be jumper—whom Lugo will describe only as “a healthy 26-year-old was pouring out his troubled marital history. Within an hour, she had convinced him that he could get help, just as she had. Promising to be his friend, she took his trembling hand and led him down to safety.
The next morning Lugo, who had not even told her parents about the incident, awoke to discover she was a hero, soon to be known throughout the city as the Blue Angel. Remembers Lugo: “My mother [Anna] said, ‘Yolanda, you’re on the radio.’ And I said, ‘I am? Why? Did I win a prize?’ Now, I’ll see a school bus go by with 50 kids in it and they’ll all shout out the window, ‘There’s the Blue Angel!’ It’s hysterical.”
Within the Lugo family, Yolanda’s quiet courage has long been a known and treasured quantity. Her own crash course in mortality came four years ago when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a condition affecting the lymph glands. Angelo, 44, Yolanda’s father—a police officer himself, as is her brother, Jonathan, 22—describes his daughter’s bout with Hodgkin’s as his “darkest hour.” He says, “We’re talking about a person who doesn’t smoke, who doesn’t even drink coffee. She does gymnastics, karate-I mean, she was in such good shape. That’s what pulled her through. Anyone else would have been gone.”
“Some of my doctors gave me a 60 percent chance of living,” says Yolanda, who began chemotherapy within days of her diagnosis. She had her first remission in 1988, but then in 1989 underwent surgery for a growth in her stomach. Since then her prognosis has been very good, although, she admits, the disease could return tomorrow. “It can do anything it wants,” she says. “But when it lands on you, you have to grow up on the spot.”
She’s hoping her new friend will undergo a similar metamorphosis. So far she has visited him twice at the hospital, just as she said she would at the bridge. Concerning his present state, she says, “He’s not crazy, just depressed. He and his wife are working things out.”
Things also seem to be working out for Lugo, who has a promising relationship with a Chinese-American computer-science and engineering student. (“The first time I met him, he was very impressed with my karate,” she says. “In fact, he liked me because I kicked his butt so bad.”) Still, the recent praise notwithstanding, her health has been an issue with the police department, which was once considering lengthening her rookie probation period of two years. Then, ironically, there was a complaint against her for being, in effect, too nice to people. All she did, she says, was give a hamburger one day to an old homeless man, and she caught flak for it.
“She’s the type of person who, when she’s out on the beat, gives food to all the bums,” explains Angelo, who adds you have to be careful of con artists. At one point, says Angelo with a grin, Yolanda was being referred to around the station house as “Mother Teresa.” Which seems just about right.
SAM MEAD in Staten Island