Scott Stairclimb Profile: Flagstaff Interagency Hotshot Joe Schmieder

March 11, 2017
Former Flagstaff Interagency hotshot Joe Schmieder, who was diagnosed with stage 4 Burkitt’s lymphoma, will take part in next year's stairclimb.

Firehouse is sharing profiles of firefighters who have been diagnosed with Leukemia or Lymphoma and who are part of the upcoming Scott Firefighter Stairclimb in Seattle, March 12. Firehouse will provide a live stream of the day-long fundraiser on and on our Facebook page beginning at 10:30 a.m. ET.

The word "miracle" gets thrown around quite a bit, but there are few extraordinary situations that truly merit the definition. There are maybe even fewer people who actually get to experience a “miracle” in their lives, let alone two. But what Joe Schmieder, former wildland firefighter with the Flagstaff Interagency Hotshots in Northern Arizona has gone through, is nothing short of this description. 

In October 2014, Joe was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease after experiencing months of severe stomach pains that never seemed to be resolved. He was put on a series of steroids and a biologic drug that put him in the hospital many times, and didn’t show any improvement in his condition. For a guy who literally hadn’t been in the hospital since he had been born, suddenly living part of his life in one was a scary notion. It was only after his fourth visit to the hospital, an immense amount of pain, and multiple rounds of intense treatment specifically for Crohn's, that doctors realized Joe actually had blood cancer.

He was diagnosed with stage 4 Burkitt lymphoma, a rare and deadly form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. What was even more shocking was how quickly the cancer had metastasized, and was already in eight of his organs including his spinal fluid, testes, pancreas, both intestines, kidney and bladder. Given the amount of time that had already passed misdiagnosed, this was an absolutely terrifying discovery for Joe and his wife Alyssa.

Because of its rarity, Joe was unable to find sufficient treatment in Flagstaff. So with the help of Joe’s fire family, they packed up his entire house and moved him to Tucson for treatment at Tucson’s University Medical Center.

Beginning in January 2015, Joe was started on aggressive chemotherapy—Hyper CVAD—in which a patient is given multiple doses of the medicine in one day. He was later treated with immunotherapy, and says the overall process was absolutely brutal on his body. For over nine months, Joe found himself throwing up frequently, with no appetite, fluctuating fevers and suffered much loss of sleep. During this year of being in and out of the hospital, at one point he was unable to even consume any food or drink, and had to undergo and exploratory surgery to find out what was specifically causing this new problem. Doctors realized that a cancerous tumor had destroyed a large section of his intestines that then had to be removed entirely.

Amidst all of this pain and fear, something beautiful was born. Literally. Just six days before Joe was scheduled to go into the hospital, Alyssa (somewhat unexpectedly) found out she was pregnant, and was eventually able to be induced to give birth between Joe's fourth and fifth rounds of chemo. Because of the radiation he has now endured, at the ripe age of 32, Joe is no longer able to have children, but in the nick of time became the proud and deeply loving father of their son, Joseph Nicolas.

“As a parent you look at things a lot differently,” Joe said. “I try to not get as upset about things as I used to, and really try to enjoy every day with him. I can’t take for granted watching him grow up.”

But the unexpected blessings of the universe didn’t stop there, as Joe is now officially considered to be in remission, and his latest PET scan came back clean. As a man who spent five years working as a hotshot battling blazes in the wild, he’s now made it out more unscathed than one might expect.

Throughout this journey, Joe and Alyssa say their community has been an absolute force of love. In fact, his friends, family, and fellow firefighters were able to raise tens of thousands of dollars to assists in covering hefty medical bills and put their minds at ease when the baby was on the way. It truly does take a village.

Joe will climb with us for the first time in the 2018 Scott Firefighter Stairclimb! If anyone can show us how to Climb, Conquer, Cure, it’s surely the Schmieder family.

EMILY MUIRHEAD is a campaign assistant with The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society—Washington/Alaska Chapter and part of the Scott Safety Stair Climb Challenge.

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