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...

Day 66. I was so debilitated from the second chemotherapy treatment I'd gotten the day before that I barely had the energy to get out of bed to go to the hospital. My entire neck area was severely burned by the radiation and had turned black like the burns you can get from hot oil in the kitchen. It was blistered, oozing fluid, and painful to the touch. The chemotherapy kept me nauseous 24-hours a day. The pain was constant. My pain medication had escalated to the point that I was on full-dose Fentanyl patches and Oxycodone, a strong opiate. Back in the friendly torture chamber, I could feel the radiation on my neck every day, like salt on open wounds. With help from Mary Ann, I could barely get back into bed after my treatment and just lay there, not asleep and not fully awake, until my next treatment the following day.

Day 74. A Friday: one of the lowest points of my treatment because of a particularly severe bout of nausea. I had been throwing-up all day and by early evening I continued to expel everything that we could put in my stomach tube. The nausea had really gotten away from us. In between dry heaves, I finally asked Mary Ann to call 9-1-1. I knew that I could not survive the weekend until my Monday appointment without IV fluids. As she phoned in, I sat for a few minutes in the living room, too weak to even sit up, and waited for the medics from my own department to come to transport me. Calling our own fire department for help was one thing I had sworn to myself I would never do. Professional pride, I guess.

Mary Ann cried again, comforted by our operations deputy chief and our medical services officer, as the medics hooked up IV's and packaged me for transport. I continued to cough into the oxygen mask as they closed the doors of the rig and we drove off into the night. I spent the next 11 hours in the emergency room and it took three bags of fluid to bring me back to "normal." The medics would later say they would not have recognized me if they hadn't known whose house they were responding to in the first place.

Day 87. I had been having hallucinations for weeks. Whenever I walked down a hallway, the bare walls seemed to be covered in horrible, black graffiti. Slash marks and designs that I couldn't read, but which felt ominous and evil. Whenever I looked at a blank space, the markings marred my view. If I read a book, the markings were there, in the margins, haunting me.

On that particular day, at the peak of my illness, I felt close to dying. After arriving at the hospital and being fully prepped, my third chemotherapy session was cancelled at the last minute because my red and white blood cell counts were about one-half of what they should've been. They were not within safe limits necessary to proceed with the therapy without life-threatening implications. They recommended a transfusion to build my blood count back up.

I had lost 40 pounds. My head was shaved because my hair had been falling out in ugly clumps. I had sores on my face and inside of my mouth from the treatment. My breathing continued to be labored because of the persistent congestion in my airway. My strength was just about gone, and even my will to live was fading.

As I lay in bed in the middle of the day, again neither awake nor asleep, I had what I can only describe as a "waking dream." Death came, literally, to my door. I saw a dark shape fill the doorway and looked to see who it was. The black figure loomed there, just on the other side of the threshold; a vaguely female form covered in a shroud comprised of layer-upon-layer of black veils, swaying as though blown by a slight breeze. I was immobilized with terror, more scared than I have ever been in my life. I couldn't breathe. Only my eyes were capable of movement. As I looked more closely, I realized that her veils were not made of lace but rather small constellations of black stars. Larger stars for the bigger veils below and smaller stars toward the head, and the stars were all swirling slowly like thousands of black ants crawling on an anthill, giving the veils the illusion of being wind-blown. But she didn't come inside the room. She just hovered in the doorway, facing me, without making a sound. After a few minutes that felt like an eternity, she receded just as quickly as she had appeared. It took me several minutes after the episode to catch my breath and be able to move again, and then I shook uncontrollably. I was so affected by the experience that I couldn't even tell anyone about it until several months had passed; when I got up the courage to share it, more than one person suggested it may not have been a dream at all.