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 was working a detail at Engine 13 that day and we were called in on the second alarm. When we arrived, we were told to stretch a 2-1/2-inch hoseline up an extended aerial ladder and into a sixth floor window. Up we went, wearing only turnout coats, helmets, and gloves for protection. None of us wore masks. Within 10 minutes, we found ourselves trapped in the stairway on the eighth floor. The stairs we had come up were compromised by fire and arcing electrical lines, so we couldn't go back the way we had come to the ladder on floor six. In front of us on one side was a locked steel-clad door which we couldn't pry open since we hadn't brought along forcible-entry tools. In the other direction was an open door with huge, angry flames shooting out of it. Our 2-1/2-inch line, opened full-bore, wasn't even making a dent. We didn't have portable radios in those days, and though we tried yelling and waving down to the street level for help, we were so high-up no one on the street noticed us. At one point, I was overcome with smoke and lost consciousness. One of my fellow firefighters picked me up and thrust my head out the window for fresh air, which revived me. At last, about 45 minutes later, a much-welcomed truck crew came through the locked door behind us and allowed us to evacuate the building.

We were given oxygen at the scene by fire department paramedics and ended up returning to the firehouse after the fire to complete our shift and go home. I coughed up nasty, black soot for three days afterwards.

And we danced...

The radiation machine finally wound down and I was thrust back to the here-and-now. The lights came up and my first treatment was over. Sure enough, as soon as the mask was removed, I went into a coughing attack, spitting out a mouth-full of phlegm and choking in huge lung-fulls of air.

This continued for almost 10 weeks. I had radiation treatments every day, Monday through Friday, and even though my lung infection finally subsided with the medications, it never got much easier.

The day after my first radiation treatment, I had my first chemo-therapy treatment. I had seen other patients around the hospital in wheel chairs with electronic IV carts in tow, administering the chemicals into their bodies as they talked to people, or read, or just sat. My experience was different. The chemotherapy drug I got, called Cisplatin, is the strongest available. Getting the treatment was a full-day experience. First, I was taken to a semi-private area and given two large bags of IV fluids to hydrate my body so it could handle the drugs.

After several hours, the technician pulled the curtains and re-entered the little cubicle that contained my bed. After fully explaining what I should expect, she donned a protective plastic suit, face protection, eye protection, and gloves, all to guard against accidental spills and splashes, and hung the small bag of Cisplatin. She told me that the drug was very strong; if spilled it would literally eat through concrete. It took another hour for the chemicals to enter my body, and it was followed by another large bag of fluids to further assist with hydration.

That was when the nausea began, and it would be with me for months afterwards.

As the days went on, I became weaker and weaker. My sleep was constantly interrupted by either pain, nausea, or both. Mary Ann, ever the supportive wife, would wake up with me as many as five times a night, get up and grind whatever I needed in a pill crusher, pain meds, nausea meds, or both, dilute them with water and inject them into my stomach tube. At one point, I was taking over 20 different medications. We were told to rotate the nausea drugs to try and stay ahead of it; if it gets away from you, we were warned, it will be bad. Eventually, I only rose from bed to go to the bathroom or to the hospital for treatment.

One morning, my voice just went away. I tried to speak and nothing came out. Not even a whisper. I had been told to expect this particular side-effect of the radiation treatments, but there is no way to prepare for such a reality when it hits you. For the next few months, I was completely mute.

Sometime near the beginning of my illness, a friend contacted the Firefighter Cancer Support Network and gave them my name. They called right away and within two weeks sent me a package containing literature and tools I would need to help get me through the ordeal. They also referred me to several fellow firefighters around the country who had the same type of cancer, and each of them contacted me for fellowship and peer-counseling. They are a Godsend and there is no way I can thank them enough for the great work they do. If you or a fellow firefighter is unfortunate enough to become a cancer victim, they are a great resource. You can reach them at 1-866-994-FCSN, or on the web at: www.FirefighterCancerSupport.org. As their name implies, they are there to help you.