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Colleagues shave heads in support of FF-paramedic with breast cancer

Fellow firefighters shaved their head in solidarity with Firefighter-Paramedic Michelle Aprati while also raising money to help with her medical expenses


Jennifer Johnson
Pioneer Press Newspapers, Suburban Chicago, Ill.

NILES, Ill. — Michelle Aprati was working her shift with the Niles Fire Department when the call from her doctor came.

Her test results were in, and they were what she had suspected they might be: She had breast cancer.

“I had a hard cry, but it was a good cry,” Aprati recalled.

A mother of four and a Niles firefighter and paramedic for the last 16 years, Aprati said the hardest part of her diagnosis was telling her family — both at home and at the firehouse.

“When you work that close together, they become your family,” Aprati said of her fellow firefighters.

And like family, the men of the Niles Fire Department stepped forward to offer their support.

On Feb. 16, they and members of other neighboring fire departments gathered at the Niles Fire Station on Dempster Street to shave their heads in solidarity with Aprati, who is in the middle of her first phase of chemotherapy treatments. Aprati had been planning to have her husband, Brian, shave off her blond locks due to the hair loss she was experiencing from the treatments, but when she heard members of the department wanted to do a mass shaving event at the fire station, she agreed to hold off.

“We more or less celebrated it,” Aprati said of the event, which also acted as a fundraiser to help pay Aprati’s medical expenses not covered by insurance. Several members of Aprati’s family, including her three youngest daughters, also attended.

As planned, Aprati’s husband shaved off her hair, but Aprati got to do some barbering of her own. When someone offered to donate $500 if Fire Chief Marty Feld agreed to shave his decades-old mustache in addition to the hair on his head, Aprati picked up the shaver.

“It was about 25 years old,” Feld said of his mustache. “It’s been a while since it’s been gone.”

Feld said about 50 people, most of them fire personnel or family members, volunteered to have their heads shaved. The group included members of the Park Ridge, North Maine, Morton Grove, Skokie and Glenview Fire Departments, he said.

“In comparison to what (Aprati) is experiencing, this was nothing,” Feld said of the shaving itself. “But it was to show her that we are there for her. It’s a small way of saying we have her back. I think that’s what the real point was: We’re behind you; you’re not doing this alone.”

In addition to contributing financial donations, firefighters sold pins shaped like pink ribbons to raise money for Aprati.

Aprati is considered the only “sister” of the Niles Fire Department, as she is currently their only female firefighter/paramedic. Her father, James MacArthur, was a fire chief in Elk Grove Village and Itasca, paving the way for her own career choice, she said.

“That’s how I exposed myself to this work — seeing his lifestyle,” she said.

Aprati initially worked in another field after college, but when some college friends began testing for firefighter/paramedic positions, she decided to do so as well. She was hired by the Niles Fire Department in 2003 and has been there ever since.

Diagnosed with breast cancer in December, Aprati, of Bolingbrook, said she is in her sixth of 12 rounds of chemotherapy and has felt well enough to continue working her regular shifts with the fire department. She acknowledges, though, that as her treatment progresses, fatigue may force her to take some time off.

“I’m taking it step by step,” she said. “I know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

After her first series of treatments, Aprati said she will begin a second phase that requires four cycles of new cancer-fighting drugs. Surgery and radiation will follow, she said.

Aprati said her cancer spread to her lymph nodes and is considered to be stage 3 or 4, but she explained that she is taking her doctor’s advice to focus on how it is being treated, rather than the stage given to it.

She is also focused on the outpouring of love and support she has received.

“Thank you isn’t enough,” she said to the firefighters, family members and friends who accompanied her at the fire station on Feb. 16. “I’m so touched, so blessed and so grateful …. It was a great day and I’m very thankful.”

“I like the fact that this brings us closer together as a department,” Feld said. “You hate to see anyone diagnosed with cancer, but we rallied around each other and we support each other. It’s great to see.”


©2020 Pioneer Press Newspapers (Suburban Chicago, Ill.)