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...

I feel as though we danced with the devil, each of us in turn, when first we set out to become firefighters. Each of us has our own particular experience. In some cases, the devil comes right at you; I've known rookies who were beaten down at one of their first fire calls, burned or crushed. Over the years, I've seen some survive the experience with only scars to show for it, while others were swallowed whole and just...didn't.

We went back to the station afterwards and ate our dinner in silence, as, in those days, there was no such thing as a stress-debriefing. Larry and I had our own dance with the devil that day, and the devil had exacted his due from the life of a little girl. I kept my eyes on the devil as we danced; I wasn't burned or injured. Or so I thought. But I didn't think about his poisoned-tail. At some point, whether at this fire or another, the point lanced my throat so neatly that I didn't even know I had been wounded. It lay there, dormant, possibly for decades, until the time came when it bloomed like an evil seed. Larry died of brain cancer in 2007. We will never know which exposure, or series of exposures, got him. Station 31, where we both worked at the time, had an especially high number of firefighter deaths from cancer. The station itself was the subject of a protracted investigation in the early 2000's.

And we danced...

Back to the harsh reality of 34 years later, I continued listening to the doctor as he described what we should expect. The proposed surgery sounded radical to me; I had seen lots of EMS patients over the years with stomas, and the concept of becoming one of them was a lot for me to handle. When he was finished talking, I asked, "What are my alternatives?" I sensed him disengage slightly. He told me I could get a second opinion if I wanted to, but that I had better hurry because the cancer was spreading quickly and was already in the lymph nodes on both sides of my throat. It would jump to my internal organs soon. "Who are the best doctors in the area for this?" I asked. He gave me a few names, including Dr. Neal Futran at the University of Washington, considered one of the very best anywhere.

That afternoon on the phone, I found it was extremely difficult to get in to see any of the top-notch doctors who had been recommended as they are always in high-demand. Their staff people told me they only took some referrals, even from other doctors. The days were ticking by. I got good advice and support from my friend Dr. Mickey Eisenberg, the medical program director of King County Medic One, about the process.

On Day 13, I contacted Dr. Michael Copass, medical director of Seattle Medic One and an old friend that I once worked very closely with. Besides being possibly the best-known EMS medical director in the country, Dr. Copass is also a professor of medicine at the University of Washington. To call him "well-respected" would be a gross understatement of the facts. He happened to be in Alaska on a rare, well-deserved vacation when I got a hold of him on his cell phone. After I explained my situation to him, he asked "What can I do to help you?"

"I need you to help me get to see Dr. Futran at the University of Washington Medical Center. Right away." Thanks to a referral from Dr. Copass, I got an appointment with Dr. Futran the very next day, five days before my scheduled surgery.

Fast-forward to Day 14: my meeting with Dr. Futran. After yet another exam and more tests, he asked about the pending surgery my other doctor had recommended."Have you given any thought to what your quality of life would be after this surgery?" he asked. He explained that I would lose part of my throat, part of my tongue, my epiglottis, and probably my vocal cords. "Yes, I have thought about it, but what are my options?" He told me that he had seen excellent results in squamous cell tumors, which is what I had, with just radiation and chemotherapy--no surgery. "When can I start?" I said.

Never having been through a similar experience, I thought I could begin radiation therapy right away. I imagined it would be like getting an X-ray at the dentist. How complicated can it be, I thought. "By now, I was really nervous. Not only was I panicky about how fast the cancer was spreading, I was developing a lung infection. Since my epiglottis was compromised, whenever I tried to eat I choked on my food and invariably aspirated some of it into my lungs. I was having a harder and harder time just breathing. Why can't we just get going with the treatment?