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Some things in firefighting don’t get better with practice

No matter how conditioned we think we are to death, losing a fellow firefighter to cancer never gets easy


“With all that we know about cancer and all that we do to prevent and cure it, you’d think these losses would be fewer and easier to take – but they’re not,” writes Wyatt.

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No funnies in the firehouse this month.

It has happened again for the fourth time in my career of fire service employment. You would think it wouldn’t be a big deal since one gains valuable insight from past experiences.

The first time you are put in a difficult situation you learn and gain insight for the next time. That might be a definition of experience. So, you would think after three times I would have been ready to handle number four.

But that’s not the case. In fact, this one might have been the toughest one yet. They seem to be getting worse.

I’m referring to the death of a co-worker due to cancer. This time it was an office administrator person whom I had worked with for many years.

My first was in 1989. The victim was a young firefighter like myself who rode across the engine cover from me on a partially open cab Ward LaFrance.

I had been on four years and was just learning about what it’s like to lose a co-worker. This business is a little different than your average work environment, especially in smaller departments.

I know office workers spend a lot of time together, but it seems that we are a much more close-knit group. We spend holidays together, sleep together and we share each other’s marriages, divorces, the growing up of children and so forth.

No immunity

The second was a captain who had to have been one of the funniest people I have ever known. I had worked with and for him for years, and this was a difficult time. His name is engraved on the bell on our ladder truck bumper.

The third was a medic I used to drive on the ambulance. He was a super nice guy who could eat his weight in chicken wings. Whenever I pass his favorite wing place, I still think of him.

You would think I, or we as a group, would be prepared for this and have little trouble in handling these things. A firefighter sees as much death as the average undertaker.

The dead, the dying and their families are a daily occurrence. We see it all, death in every form. We see murders, suicides, cancer, heart attacks, car wrecks and on and on.

However, when it comes in our house, it seems that much worse. It’s kind of like we should be immune because of all the work we do to help others, but it doesn’t seem to work that way.

This time was excruciating. We all had a ringside seat to watch this event take its course. Once again we were shown cancer doesn’t care who you are or how you live your life.

This was one of the nicest people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. If there is a heavenly nice people hall of fame, she has already been inducted and given her blazer or plaque or whatever they do.

Healed by the sick

Do bad people ever die of cancer? Seriously have you ever heard of a person on death row dying of cancer? I’m sure it happens, but it has to be a rarity.

I went to see her a week before she died. I was apprehensive because I’m not good at concealing my true feelings, and we all knew she was in a bad way.

However, she, although in some pain and being very tired, was her usually bubbly self. We laughed and talked about the misadventures at the fire department. She told me she hoped to be back soon in a part-time capacity.

I left feeling better. My mission was to say hello and perhaps make her feel better. She, in her condition, had made me feel better.

The end came barely a week later. I was of course completely blindsided, although I knew this would be the eventual outcome.

You know there are phases of grief that somebody came up with, somebody who’s probably smarter than most of us and has a framed certificate on the wall indicating they made at least a 70 on a test. The stages are anger, denial, acceptance and all that.

It’s pointless to get mad; who do you direct your anger to? I can’t very well deny what happened; she isn’t at the station anymore. So, I’m pretty much forced to accept it.

It goes on

The one thing I am sure of is: life goes on. That is a fact that I came to understand many years ago.

I can recall several very bad freeway incidents in which multiple people died and the next day thousands of cars passed right over that spot, never knowing what happened the night before. A life came to an end, and in some cases a life that never really got started.

Although remembered by family and vaguely by emergency responders, life went on. Millions of cars have passed over the spot of what happened.

Our office worker’s desk has been cleaned out and it sits vacant. A new person will occupy it in the future. Life goes on.

When I think of going to the business office to pester the chief about buying something ridiculous, I still think I will see her.

With all that we know about cancer and all that we do to prevent and cure it, you’d think these losses would be fewer and easier to take – but they’re not.

Let me hear from you.

This article, originally published in 2017, has been updated.

Will Wyatt, originally from New Orleans, has been in the fire service for about 30 years. Wyatt is a captain at a fire department near Houston. He has held numerous ranks with fire departments, including full-time training officer, fire marshal and deputy chief. Wyatt holds a master firefighter certification in Texas, an instructor certification, pump operator certification and an associate degree from Houston Community College. He is author of the book, “And a Paycheck, Too!” Check out an excerpt here. Connect with Wyatt on LinkedIn.