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Former firefighter with cancer advocates for change to save others

After Blake Rine was diagnosed with cancer, he traveled around Ohio warning firefighters of their exposure to carcinogens, prompting fire departments to make changes

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By Mike Wagner
Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS, Ohio — At almost the exact moment that Blake Rine ran into the end zone to finish off a 50-yard touchdown run, his dad crumbled to the ground.

Mark Rine had jumped out of his seat to celebrate his son’s feat, but the shooting pain in his legs did to him what the defense couldn’t do to Blake.

He lay there for about 45 seconds, embarrassed, wondering again if his terminal cancer was finally going to end the assault on his body. Would it be the tumor in his spine, the poison in his blood or the cancerous spots that need to be cut out of his flesh that would take him from his wife and five children? He wondered how many more high school football games or birthday parties or graduations he might be alive to see.

The Columbus firefighter, who has saved countless other firefighters from suffering his fate, could barely feel his legs on that night in September. But somehow he pushed himself back up.

It’s what he has been doing since September 2012, when doctors diagnosed him with stage 4 melanoma — skin cancer — and told him his chance of surviving five years was less than 5 percent.

“I’m thankful for all the time they said I wouldn’t have,” said Rine, now 37, who was told by doctors his cancer was probably caused by his occupation. “God performs miracles, and he had a purpose for me. I’ve tried to carry that purpose every day, and I hope it’s made a difference.”

Few, if anyone in the country, has done more than Rine in the past five years to combat the cancer threat to firefighters.

The Granville resident is credited by his peers with saving thousands of lives and helping prompt real changes in the fire service that will have a lasting impact on generations of firefighters to come.

Following his diagnosis, Rine spent months researching the cancer threat. He learned it had become the leading cause of death among firefighters. He then traveled around Ohio and beyond for more than three years warning firefighters of their exposure to carcinogens — such as flame-retardant chemicals and toxins released into the air when buildings and vehicles burn.

Rine’s presentations weren’t subtle or polite. He scolded firefighters about not wearing their gear or not cleaning themselves immediately after leaving fire scenes. He told them flatly they were going to die much too soon, as he will, if they didn’t change their bad habits.

His work was featured about a year ago in The Dispatch series “Unmasked,” which investigated the high rate of cancer among firefighters and the struggle in the firefighting services to protect their own.

As part of its reporting, The Dispatch conducted a statewide survey of professional, full-time firefighters from across Ohio. Among the findings: One in six of the nearly 1,300 firefighters who responded to the survey said they had been diagnosed with cancer at some point in their careers.

Rine’s crusade has prompted hundreds of fire departments big and small to make sweeping changes to protect their men and women from the cancer threat. In Ohio alone, the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation has awarded nearly 500 grants totaling $5.1 million to about 40 percent of the state’s fire departments. That money has been used to buy new equipment and second sets of gear and to make much-needed improvements to older fire stations, such as installing exhaust systems to reduce diesel-exhaust fumes. Countless firefighters have received cancer screenings for the first time.

Fire chiefs and firefighters across the country have reached out to Rine and the newspaper, either seeking more cancer-prevention information or reporting that they have made real changes in an effort to save lives.

“Mark says in his message, ‘Let me die for you,’ and that has been heard loud and clear by firefighters all over,” said Capt. John Haseney, of the Fire Department of the City of New York. “It’s still a struggle to convince some of the older guys this is real, but when you see so many of these cancer-related, line-of-duty deaths, you realize that what Mark is telling us to do can save your brother or sister.”

Mission accomplished

He handed the chief his coat, boots, gloves, hood, mask and the duty blue uniform that he had worn shortly after he was sworn in as a firefighter at the academy 11 years ago.

Rine retired in August, and turning in his equipment was supposed to be a formality.

It felt almost as bad as accepting a desk job in 2014 when he was going through chemotherapy and could no longer fight fires or work as a paramedic.

Rine’s cancer hasn’t spread in the past 18 months. But diminishing discs in his back, the shooting pain in the legs from the tumor, the constant exhaustion from not sleeping and other daily obstacles meant he no longer could continue working.

Disability and other health benefits, as well as his wife Heather’s nursing career, will allow Rine to spend whatever time he has left focused on his family.

Rine said he felt like a quitter when he turned in his gear, but he is at peace with the legacy he has left behind. He hopes the hundreds of cancer-prevention presentations he gave have a lasting impact on firefighters, especially the young ones.

“My mission was complete. I accomplished everything I wanted to do to help other guys,” Rine said. “I am proud of what I’ve done. But I still get pissed off when I hear another firefighter has been diagnosed with cancer and think, ‘When are they going to listen and start protecting themselves?’ Some guys are just so bullheaded and don’t get the message. I liked talking to the fresh meat at the academy the most, because they have a chance to establish good habits from the beginning.”

More than talk

Some firefighters were lifting up their pant legs and shirt sleeves checking for spots on their skin while Rine was still thundering away at them from the stage. Wives were already whispering to their husbands that they better clean up after a fire. City leaders sat front and center and made promises to make things safer for their firefighters.

Of all the hundreds of places Rine had traveled over the past several years, there was no place he left a bigger impact than at the Findlay Fire Department in northwestern Ohio.

“What they did up there in Findlay is the national model for how to fight the cancer risks to firefighters,” Rine said. “Anything short of what they did isn’t good enough.”

Each firefighter in the 63-member Findlay department now has two sets of gear. Vehicle-exhaust removal systems will be installed in each of their four station houses by the middle of next year. They have bought industrial washing machines to clean dirty gear. A federal grant helped replace the self-contained breathing apparatus for each firefighter.

Findlay Fire Chief Josh Eberle also implemented policy changes, including making the incident commander at each scene responsible for ensuring that firefighters keep their gear on while responding to fires. Firetrucks are equipped with decontamination buckets that contain wipes, brushes and hoses.

All of the cancer-prevention efforts are personal in Findlay. One firefighter has died of what’s believed to have been occupational cancer, and others have been diagnosed with forms of the disease.

“Watching a firefighter die of cancer ... I hope that is something I never have to see again in my career,” Eberle said. “Mark’s message sunk in with our guys. He has saved more guys than he will ever understand.”

But those in power within the fire service know more must be done to continue the crusade Rine started.

“I just got calls last week about two more guys being diagnosed with cancer,” said Dave Montgomery, president of Columbus Firefighters Union Local 67 and Rine’s former boss. “I’m happy he gets to enjoy the rest of his life, but he left a giant hole here. This was his legacy, and it’s not something you can just replace.”

Tracking time

The migraine headache lasted for eight days until Heather Rine persuaded her husband to have it checked out by doctors. While he laid in a hospital bed that night this past August, Rine felt like his skin had caught on fire and the walls were going to eat him.

It was a panic attack, one caused by the anxiety and depression that Rine had tried to suppress since being told he had terminal cancer. He couldn’t handle it alone anymore and finally agreed to take some anti-depressant medication to help him manage it.

Heather was relieved her loving but stubborn husband was finally facing his mental-health issues the way he used to attack putting out a fire. Since his retirement from firefighting and even coaching middle-school football, Heather and the kids see a more relaxed, fun-loving husband and father.

“It’s truly a blessing he is still here,” Heather said. “We are making plans for the future and vacations and talk about taking the kids to college. You have to have faith. You can’t worry about what you can’t control, and Mark is now dealing with that.”

Rine was back at another high school football game in late October, but that time his legs didn’t let him down. He was able to stand, sometimes in the pouring rain, to film the game for the Granville team.

With a couple minutes left in the game and the victory in hand, Blake Rine, the sophomore back-up varsity quarterback, finally entered the game.

On his first play, the ball was snapped over Blake’s head and recovered by the other team.

There would be no magical touchdown to celebrate that night, but there are far better days ahead for Blake.

“His time will come,” Mark said. “I just hope there is enough time on my clock to see it.”

Copyright 2018 Columbus Dispatch