We Danced With The Devil: One Firefighter’s Cancer Chronicles

An exceprt from this article appears in the December 2009 issue of Firehouse Magazine.Editor's Note: Chief Trevino's share a brief story about his good friend Dave Jacobs in this article. Mr. Jacobs lost his battle to cancer before the article could be...

 "You have a mass in your throat," he said after examining me, "It looks malignant. And aggressive." He looked me right in the eye as he spoke, making sure I understood the gravity of his comments. My wife Mary Ann and I sat in stunned silence as he informed us of what needed to be done to complete his diagnosis. As he talked on, my mind took me back to all of those times when I entered burning buildings without breathing protection, and all of the times I worked for hours, unprotected, doing salvage and overhaul in the smoldering remains of fires over the past three decades. Like my peers, I had felt bullet-proof in those days. I had always thought that cancer was something that happened to other people. Not me. Now, for the first time, I was actually afraid for my life.

The doctor scheduled me for a surgical biopsy and a bevy of tests, including a CAT/scan, immediately. On Day Five, when the results came in, I brought my wife Mary Ann along to hear what the doctor had to say. Like me when the symptoms had begun, she was still convinced it was nothing. I, on the other hand, was now convinced that it was definitely something. "The tumor in your throat covers your epiglottis. It's about the size of a walnut, and seems to be growing quickly. It's definitely malignant."

We sat and listened as the doctor explained what his recommended course of treatment was. He said we had to get the tumor out as soon as possible, and scheduled surgery within two weeks. We asked about the process. He told us that they would go in and excise the tumor and any other affected tissue they found once inside. I would have to breathe through a stoma at the base of my throat for at least the first few months. There was a chance they could save my vocal cords, he said, but I wouldn't have an epiglottis anymore. Part of my tongue and part of my throat would also have to be removed. I would have to learn to eat and swallow again after further surgery to try to make my throat as normal as possible. I had a good chance at survival, he added, but there were no guarantees. I looked over at Mary Ann and she had tears streaming down her face. I tried to get my mind around the fact that my son might not have a father around to help raise him.

As the doctor continued to explain, part of my mind reflected back for some reason to one of the worst calls I had ever responded to. One of those calls you can never really get out of your thoughts. It was a day long ago in Seattle, a hot and sunny summer afternoon in 1975, when a full-response assignment came in with a "go" for the house: Engine 31, Ladder 5, and Aid 31. Also responding from other north-end stations were Engines 24, 39, and from the University District, Battalion 6. The report was that some kids were playing in an abandoned construction shack, and the caller said there was smoke in the area. I was driving Aid 31. We got out of the house much sooner than the big rigs, and when I heard that kids were involved, my foot naturally went to the floor.

We got to the location minutes before the next-arriving unit. My partner Larry LaBrec and I drove through the gate of the storage yard and up to the smoking shack, where a hysterical 7-year-old boy kept yelling, "She's inside!" We clambered out of the rig and rushed in to pry the pad-locked plywood door open from the top. We literally fell into the thick smoke of a smoldering fire. The kids had crawled under the door, which had been intentionally blocked with heavy timbers to try to prevent illegal entry, and filled the space with cushions and foam-rubber pillows to create a make-shift playhouse. The fire had apparently been ignited by the candles the kids had used to light the interior. The smoke was thick, black, and obviously toxic. We went in without masks, as we always did in those days. Our protective gear consisted of only our helmets, black canvas turnout coats with green wool liners, one-layer leather gloves, and non-treated cotton work uniforms.

Visibility was zero. We found the little girl by searching with our hands through the smoldering pillows and Larry handed her out to me as I crawled out first. She was dead; literally cooked to death. She had swollen up to about twice her normal size and was disfigured beyond recognition. Her face was completely smooth, without any indication of where her mouth, eyes, ears, or nose had once been. I'd forgotten about the little boy until I heard his shrill screaming behind me. As I turned, I briefly saw the terror on his face at seeing the body of the girl, and then he ran away. We never saw him again. When the other responding units arrived, Larry and I were laying on the ground, coughing and spitting up the nasty black soot we'd been inhaling.