Woman Overcomes Tumor To Become Columbus, Ohio Firefighter

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- As flames climbed the wall and spread across the bedroom ceiling of a vacant house on Cleveland Avenue in Linden, Trina McCoy's heart raced.

Gripping a 200-foot-long hose that shoots water with such force that it requires two people to control it, she helped direct the spray side to side.

But the flames grew.

Sweating under 60 pounds of fire gear in a smoky room that was the temperature of a barbecue grill, she aimed the hose toward burning plywood that covered a second-story window. The force blew the board onto the porch roof.

Water sprayed from the window onto the sidewalk below. The flames spread, and McCoy aimed for the ceiling again, just as she had been taught.

As the flames diminished, she grinned.

``This is what it's all about,'' she thought.

As a 46-year-old black woman and a divorced mother of two teenagers, she knew she wasn't the average recruit - and that she would have to overcome challenges to achieve her goal of becoming a Columbus firefighter.

But her dream seemed impossible 18 months ago. During a break at the academy with her original recruit class, her head began to throb. When an instructor asked her her name, she stared at him, unable to answer.

Frightening diagnosis

McCoy was eight weeks into her training on Jan. 27, 2003, when she blacked out in the academy cafeteria.

``I remember (fellow recruit) Danny Thompson was talking to me, but I couldn't talk back,'' she said.

Doctors would later tell her she had a seizure. Those with her that day said she sat in a chair, unable to respond to their questions.

Paramedics rushed her to Grant Medical Center, where doctors that day found a benign brain tumor the size of a golf ball.

``That was the worst day of my life. It really was,'' McCoy said. ``I was so embarrassed. I felt like a failure, like I had let everyone down.''

Everything about the job - saving people and their property, the excitement and rush of fighting fires, even the 24-hour shifts - appealed to her.

She had tired of her job as an administrative assistant at Ohio State University and applied to the academy three times before she achieved test scores necessary to be accepted, in 2002.

As it seemed her life was spinning out of control because of the tumor, she found comfort in her hospital care and the support she received from both her family and her new colleagues, many of whom she hadn't yet met.

Doctors prescribed medication that made her feel drunk and scheduled surgery for late February 2003.

Word of her situation spread through the Fire Division. On the day of her operation, about 70 uniformed firefighters gathered on the street below her hospital room in silent solidarity with her.

``I feel so blessed and so loved,'' McCoy said.

Painstaking recovery

Doctors removed the tumor, and while McCoy's physical recovery looked promising, her financial situation looked bleak.

As a recruit employed by the city for just two months, she lacked enough sick days to recover while continuing to be paid. She feared she could lose her job and her house.

That's when the family of firefighters stepped up again.

Days after McCoy's surgery, a group of them asked City Council to let them donate time off to McCoy. Council members unanimously agreed, and 132 firefighters gave up four hours each, amounting to 13 weeks.

``In the fire department, we all stick together,'' recruit Chris Kirchner said at the time.

At home, McCoy slept a lot under the watchful eye of her older sister, Pat Broadnax of Columbus. When friends and strangers would stop by, McCoy would cover her cropped hair and the horseshoe-shape scar it revealed.

McCoy had difficulty remembering things. She couldn't recall the date of her seizure or surgery, for instance, but Broadnax filled in the blanks. McCoy became restless at home; she missed her morning runs and driving a car. She wanted a haircut, to go to church and be back at the academy.

On May 27, 2003, three months after her surgery, her doctor cleared her to work again. Her dizziness and fatigue had subsided.

Her classmates had moved on, and she had missed so much training that her instructors didn't know where to put her. So they assigned her to classroom work to keep her busy. They knew she'd have to repeat the 32-week training months later.

It was like the first day in a new school. She didn't know anyone, and the only available seat was in the front of the room.

While she sat in class, her original group was outside practicing with engines, hoses and fire.

``Man, I can't wait to do that,'' she said, watching from the curb as they ran in and out of a training house.

Weeks later, as her original class was about to graduate from the academy, she stood at the back of the auditorium handing out programs for the event.

She cried.

``That was the hardest thing I had to sit through,'' she said.

Fresh start

McCoy spent the next five months entering accident reports into a computer.

It was desk work, and she hated it. But she put on a happy face because it meant a job until the next class started in December 2003.

Much of the classroom work was a repeat for her, but 10 months after her surgery, McCoy struggled to comprehend what she read. Her instructors worried that the work would be too difficult.

``We didn't know what to expect,'' Lt. Greg Howard said.

But she used every available moment _ lunch breaks, moments between classes and weekends _ to reread chapters two and three times.

Her medication appeared to be holding her back, so she stopped taking the pills midway through training, and her test scores improved.

By May, McCoy had received her first taste of staged fires.

In one scenario, McCoy's squad raced across the academy parking lot in a ladder truck to a basement fire.

McCoy jumped out, grabbed the hose and helped haul it into the house.

After another crew found the source of the fire in the basement, recruits gathered for a critique by Capt. Chris Blair.

``Why aren't there any ladders up?'' he asked.

``It's a basement fire,'' one recruit said.

``So, if anyone is upstairs and gets caught, what will you do?'' Blair asked.

Silence.

``You're a ladder company; do your job,'' he said. ``Just because the homeowner tells (dispatchers) the fire could be in the basement, it doesn't mean that it is.''

Howard added, ``Mistakes are going to be made. Let's make them here.''

McCoy walked away, nodding.

``That's fine for me because that's the way I can learn,'' she said. ``I've never done this before.''

Multiple roles

The physical and mental strain of becoming a firefighter is only part of McCoy's life.

Her daughter, Brittney, turned 18 on July 11 and graduated last month from Westerville North High School, where McCoy's 14-year-old son, Michael, will start 10th grade this fall.

During Brittney's graduation ceremony, McCoy waited almost 3 1/2 hours for her daughter's name to be called and then jumped with excitement, screaming her name.

Home is where McCoy has control. Shoes are left at the door. There's not a dish in the sink in her immaculate 5-year-old house.

McCoy said she's not overly strict but taught her children ``right from wrong.'' They both have summer jobs and spend every other weekend with their dad, which limits how often mom and children are together.

Once she's assigned to a station and works 24 hours on and has 48 hours off, she'll have more time with them.

McCoy grew up in Columbus' Linden neighborhood in a tight-knit, religious family. She graduated from Linden-McKinley High School and received an associate's degree in secretarial science from what is now Columbus State Community College. Her mother, father and brother have all died, leaving McCoy, her sister, Pat, and an extended stepfamily.

On weekends when McCoy has her children, they often go to church together at Winds of Restoration Ministries on the east side, where her sister is the minister.

The emotional services can last hours, and McCoy finds them a respite to prepare for another week.

Final hurdles

Back on Cleveland Avenue, after McCoy blew the plywood off the house, she and her squad members - Joe Leffe, Dave Long and Jeff Mills - pulled down burnt wood from the bedroom ceiling as black soot landed on their shoulders.

The heat had melted part of McCoy's helmet - a badge of honor for a firefighter.

They were in the burning house for 15 minutes.

Once outside, they squatted on the front lawn and turned off one another's air-tank valves. The bells indicating they were low on air finally were silent.

``That was pretty cool,'' she said to Long as both of them smiled.

``Yeah, the fire went up in the attic, and stuff kept falling,'' Long added.

``We had to pull down the ceiling. I shot the window out with water,'' she said. ``It looks pretty bad. I think they were planning to use that room a little more.''

She used the sleeve of her T-shirt to wipe the sweat from her forehead. Usually reserved, McCoy couldn't contain her excitement.

``It's about saving lives and people's property,'' she said, smiling ear to ear. ``It's what I've wanted to do since before my daughter was born.''

Sweet graduation

The long wait and hard work culminated July 9 at the academy.

Moments before her graduation ceremony, fellow recruits and firefighters stopped in the hallway to congratulate her. McCoy couldn't stop smiling.

``I always saw the light at the end of the tunnel,'' she said. ``It just took so long.''

She relished every moment of the hourlong ceremony - the marching, the bagpipes, the speeches.

Then the moment she'd worked for arrived.

``Trina C. McCoy,'' Capt. Blair announced.

Her family members and friends - 14 in all - screamed as she walked across the stage and took her certificate from Mayor Michael B. Coleman.

``I grabbed it so hard, I bent it,'' she said. ``I was so excited.''

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