A Call to Action

Written by a firefighter widow who lost her young husband to cancer, this article addresses the link between firefighting and cancer, as well as possible toxicity exposure affecting their loves ones.

I want to share something that many of you may not already know. In August of 2014, I was diagnosed with a form of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma called Mycosis Fungoides. I was first diagnosed by my dermatologist, who I went to see after some strange white patches appeared on my thigh. She performed a biopsy thinking it was probably psoriasis or severe eczema. I waited weeks for the results only to find out that they were delayed because the specimen was sent to multiple labs throughout the country as they tried to confirm what was a very, very rare diagnosis for a twenty-seven-year-old woman. The dermatologist then referred me to a hematologist/oncologist, explaining that I needed a physician who specialized in treating T-Cell lymphomas. I had to wait about 2 weeks to finally see the specialist and at that point all I knew was that I had lymphoma.

I was a MESS.

So scared.

I was already imagining having to go through chemotherapy, becoming infertile as a result and never being able to give Ralf a child, and even worse, leaving him behind to live this life without me.

Then, we were finally able to meet with the specialist and he put our minds at ease. He explained to us that because my skin lesions were limited to less than 10% of my body, that there was nothing to worry about. He went on to assure us that my condition was extremely unlikely to ever progress into anything further. That was the point when Ralf asked if we could proceed with our plans to soon start a family, to which the doctor replied, “Absolutely.”

Mason was conceived shortly after and, much to our surprise, Ralf was diagnosed with a brain tumor just 7 months later.

Once Ralf passed away, I started learning about the rising incidence of cancer among firefighters. One day, I had a thought that I was certain was ridiculous, but something in my gut told me it wouldn’t hurt to ask. So, I reached out to the doctor. Below is a direct quote taken from my email to him:

“When we met, you explained to me that not much is known about the causes of Mycosis Fungoides. I know it’s in no way as serious a diagnosis as my husband’s. However, in the research that I have done as a lay person, I know that my case is very rare given that I am a woman and am in my 20’s. I know this question may be very ignorant and extremely off base, but to your knowledge, are there any environmental risk factors for Mycosis Fungoides? I just find it so strange that both of us would acquire such rare diagnoses in such a short time frame. I couldn’t help but ask myself if having been exposed to his bunker gear, or washing his uniforms at home in our washer could somehow be related.”

This was his reply:

“There is some evidence that [Mycosis Fungoides] may be caused by exposures. Most cases, however, have no clear exposure.”

Now, I know this in no way proves that my condition was caused by exposure to toxins that Ralf brought home on his uniforms. The doctor clearly stated that the cause of most cases of Mycosis Fungoides is unknown. But the fact that it is at all possible, in my opinion, is enough to gain my attention. If you work in the fire service, or are a family member sharing a home with a firefighter, wouldn’t you prefer to know about all of the potential risks that are involved?

I’ll never be able to prove that Ralf’s death was caused by occupational cancer. Here’s what I have learned, though. Primary Cerebellar Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM) – the type of tumor that Ralf had – is extremely rare and accounts for just 1% of all cases of GBM. Ralf was otherwise completely healthy and had an unremarkable medical history. I wholeheartedly believe that toxicity exposure played a large role. And when you consider that cancer is the leading cause of firefighter line-of-duty deaths? I mean, come on.

If you’re a member of the fire service, wouldn’t you prefer to know about the potential risks that you are exposing yourself to, in order to preserve your health? Not only for yourself, but for your family and loved ones. To keep you around longer, not only to share special moments with them, but also so that you can continue doing the job that we know you love so much.

And if that isn’t already motivation enough – what about the possibility of exposing your family to these toxins? Would you knowingly put them in harm’s way? Of course not.

I believe Ralf would have wanted to be more educated on the topic, and I sure as hell wish I’d known more. I will never be able to understand why he had to be taken from us and why we have been left behind to continue this fight, but as Ralf loved to say, “It is what it is.”

Now it’s up to all of us – firefighters, fire families, concerned citizens, and legislators – to listen, to learn, and to act.

According to the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF), cancer has caused 61% of career firefighter line-of-duty deaths since 2002.

That’s insane.

The link is undeniable.

And it needs to be taken seriously.

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Photo by Tina Bass Photography

Sources:

https://www.firefighterclosecalls.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/FF-Cancer-Fact-Sheet.pdfhttps://www.floridafirefightersafety.org/state-face-team/face-team-resources/ff-cancer-fact-sheet/viewdocument

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2588262/

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/16215876/

For My Forever Hero

As many of you know, the anniversary of Ralf’s passing is approaching.

A few weeks ago, his father spoke at a firefighter symposium in Miami. When he told me about it, I expressed wanting to contribute somehow, but wasn’t sure what I could do. Then, the idea for this simple video came to me.

I share this not to make anyone sad, but rather to hopefully drive home a message that needs to be heard. If it inspires one member of the fire service – or one nagging and loving spouse, parent, or family member – to push for further education of the risks our firefighters face and to fight for the protections that they so deserve, then it has served a purpose.

Trust me, I’ve been there. You don’t actually think it can or will happen to you or the people closest to you.

Until it does.

How I wish that we’d known more, sooner.

As they say, when we know better, we do better.

Let’s work towards that.

,
Maeghan

 

Our Last Supper

Three years ago tonight, Ralf and I shared our last meal in our home together. Spaghetti and meatballs from one of our favorite local Italian joints – Ferrari’s.

I remember it well.

I asked if he would be okay with this dish yet again – because it was a frequent craving throughout my pregnancy – and he agreed. We had it delivered and then we sat next to each other at our kitchen counter, like we so often did. Now when I look back at this moment, I specifically remember resting my head on his shoulder and releasing a sigh of enjoyment as I devoured that first meatball.

“I don’t feel so good,” he said, with a mouth full of pasta.

“What do you feel?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I just feel off,” he explained.

“Yeah, you’ve been studying way too hard. You need a break.”

The promotional exam to become a lieutenant was just one week away. We were so close. He would be through with all the studying, his stress level would drop, and I’d have my husband back. We would finally be able to fully enjoy my pregnancy together. The maternity photo shoot was scheduled. He’d be able to join in on the baby shower planning and help me complete the registry – all of which I’d been doing without him because he was so preoccupied with preparing for his test. He would be building baby furniture and we’d be putting our son’s room together.

Finally.

Just seven more days.

I went to sleep much earlier than he did because, of course, he had to hit the books. Being the extremely light sleeper that I am, I woke up when I felt him climbing into bed hours later.

“Where are you?” he said, as he reached for me to pull me close.

“I love you so much, Maeghan. You really have no idea.”

This was not part of our regular bedtime routine. Sure, he told me he loved me regularly, but this time it was different. His tone of voice was serious, as if he needed to make sure I heard those words that night. It was as if he knew it would be the last night we would share in our bed.

Seven days later, he missed the exam because he was hospitalized awaiting his biopsy.

Eleven days later, he was removed from life support after his tumor unexpectedly ruptured and crushed his brain stem.

Three years later, I love and miss him just the same.

The New Focus

As promised in my previous post, below is the speech I gave at the Florida Professional Firefighter Convention last month. Although we continue to grieve, we now have a new focus – making sure Ralf’s death was not in vain. This is what he would have wanted. Let’s spread the word – it all starts with awareness!

Good Afternoon,

I would like to start by thanking everyone for the opportunity to address you today. I ask you for your patience and understanding in advance if I should become emotional, which these days often happens without warning.

For those of you who don’t know who I am, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Maeghan Garcia and I am the widow of the late Ralf Garcia, a beloved and well-respected City of Miami Fireman who lost his life suddenly and tragically to brain cancer less than three months ago. I was 7 months pregnant with our first, and now only, child together at the time. Although I am still very much grieving the loss of my husband and father to my son, and always will be, I stand before you today because I have made the decision to find meaning and purpose during the most difficult time of my life. Anyone who knew my husband personally knows that he always stood for what was right and always went above and beyond to help others, especially his loved ones and his brothers and sisters in the fire department. Now that he is no longer here physically, it is my goal and mission to help carry on that legacy for him. I believe with all my heart that Ralf would have wanted to do whatever possible to stop our tragedy from reoccurring and devastating more families. One widow, one baby boy who will never know his father, one father and one mother who had to bury their son – these are all one too many.

I am here today to deliver a very simple message: something needs to change. Ralf knew the necessary risks and dangers he would be facing when he made the decision to answer his vocation to become a paramedic and fireman. I don’t think, however, that he, nor any other firefighter, should have to lose his or her life due to an avoidable, unnecessary risk. These men and women who put their lives on the line for the people of their community need to be better protected. How do we better protect them? By increasing awareness of the rising number of firefighters being diagnosed with cancer, by adapting the culture and practice of these civil servants to enhance their ability to better protect themselves, by providing them the necessary tools and/or equipment needed to do so, and by pushing for firefighter safety and cancer presumption legislation. This task can only be successfully executed if approached and attacked by a unified body – of firefighters, firefighter families, administrative personnel of all ranks, concerned citizens – out to accomplish a common goal: to do everything possible to prevent one more spouse, one more child, one more set of parents from experiencing the unexplainable, unrelenting heartache and emptiness that myself, my son, Ralf’s parents and our entire family must now live on a daily basis. It is our responsibility and our duty. Let us rise up to the challenge.

Thank you.