Kevin Thompson exudes optimism, even when talking about the harsh reality of his cancer diagnosis.
“I’m fairly certain heaven is going to be awesome,” he says with a chuckle, “but I don’t want to see it tomorrow.”
Thompson was diagnosed in April with multiple myeloma, a cancer that some of his fellow firefighters refer to as the 9/11 firefighter cancer, given its prevalence among first responders to the site of the World Trade Center terrorist attack.
Multiple myeloma is a cancer of the blood that there is no cure for.
“Quite literally – not figuratively – if I want to stay alive, I will need chemotherapy for the rest of my life to keep my multiple myeloma in check,” Thompson said.
Thompson has worked as a firefighter for the City of Glendale for 26 years. During that time, he was exposed to a litany of hazardous chemicals and carcinogens that could have been the genesis of his cancer.
So, after his diagnosis, Thompson made a workers’ compensation claim with Glendale. An Arizona state law passed in 2017 allows for firefighters with specific types of cancers to get compensation for treatment, and Thompson was hoping for just that.
But Thompson’s claim was denied by Glendale.
“It felt like having a safety blanket ripped right off of you,” Thompson said.
An independent medical evaluation conducted by an outside third-party hired by the city determined there was no way to connect Thompson’s cancer diagnosis to his time as a firefighter.
Thompson’s insurance, the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System and the 100 Club of Arizona have helped him with the bills related to his treatment, but he is worried about what will happen to his fellow firefighters who are diagnosed with multiple myeloma.
Thompson’s denial didn’t exactly come as a surprise. It is part of what Thompson and others say is a growing trend of cities using third-party administrators to deny cancer claims by firefighters.
“Certain cities have taken the position of deny, deny, deny,” Bryan Jefferies, a firefighter and President of the Professional Firefighters of Arizona, said. “Not only are they fighting for their lives, but they’re fighting with their employers.”
There are at least 9 cases in the state of firefighter claims being denied by local municipalities. The issue has even prompted the Arizona Attorney General’s Office to send two letters about the issue, one to the Arizona League of Cities and Towns and the other to the City of Phoenix.
Recently, state Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, had scheduled a meeting with Glendale officials and Thompson to discuss the issue. The city unexpectedly cancelled the meeting, Boyer said, and now refuse to meet.
Disappointed @MayorWeiers and Glendale city manager Kevin Phelps cancelled at last minute on meeting to discuss Glendale illegally denying firefighter cancer claims. Doing everything I can to #ProtectOurHeroes. #AZNEWSMEDIA @unitedphxffs
— Paul Boyer (@PaulDBoyer) August 6, 2019
Boyer said he was called by Glendale’s lobbyist, who said they “have no interest in meeting with him in the future” and would respond to him only in writing.
Boyer crafted the 2017 law that outlined several types of cancers that would be covered for firefighters, one of which is multiple myeloma.
“They’re acting as if the burden is on the firefighter to prove a causal link to their cancer,” Boyer said, “but the law says its on the employer to disprove it.”
Now, Boyer and Thompson are gearing up to battle with Glendale over the claim as firefighters across the state are watching closely.
“The City of Glendale strictly follows all laws regarding employee workers’ compensation claims,” the city said in a statement to the Arizona Mirror.
“This is probably going to sound cliche”
Thompson was born into a construction family.
As a kid, his father would take him to work to learn the trade. But when he entered his 20s, he began to look elsewhere for a career.
After he got married, he and his wife decided that he should become a firefighter, so he started going to school, and by his mid-20s, he was an emergency medical technician working for the City of Glendale.
In 1995, he took a gig as a hazardous materials technician, where he was exposed to chemicals that even he can’t even recall entirely to this day. He also worked as a captain on a technical rescue truck helping injured hikers or those unlucky enough to find themselves trapped in a confined space.
Since 2002, he’s been a captain with the Glendale fire department, and he said he’s enjoyed every minute of it.
“This is probably going to sound cliche,” Thompson said when asked what kept him on the job for 26 years, “but some of the biggest reward for doing this job, for me, is the fact that it’s about going way beyond a benefits package or a job. There are days we actually go out and help people and make a difference in someone’s life. There’s a lot of satisfaction I’ve gotten from walking away from calls like that.”
In April, that job was put in jeopardy when Thompson developed what he thought at first was just pneumonia or bronchitis. In reality, it was both.
Then he kept getting sicker.
He became anemic and his kidneys started shutting down. His doctors were confused and scrambling for answers.
Then one of Thompson’s doctors put the puzzle pieces together and discovered the problem lay in his blood.
The multiple myeloma, as Thompson puts it, it just “cooks in your blood.”
Now, once a week, Thompson gets chemotherapy treatments, which he calls a “double-edged sword” and like “every nightmare you’ve ever heard of.”
It makes him tired and gives him tremors, and has caused him to develop blood clots.
But he remains optimistic.
An occupational disease
Dr. Vershalee Shukla has screened more than 500 firefighters for cancer in the past year. Currently, she has three firefighter patients under the age of 30 who have rare forms of “horrible cancer” and who are likely going to die.
“First responders are getting those toxins at such higher rates,” Shukla told the Mirror. “9/11 was so important because it brought this to our attention.”
Recently, issues related to firefighter health became a national issue when comedian Jon Stewart made a passionate speech for first responders who were fighting for benefits to treat cancers they had gotten while working at ground zero of the 9/11 tragedy.
Shukla is part of a first-of-its-kind program in Arizona: She is an oncologist who has been hired by the Phoenix Fire Department to begin screening first responders.
She’s screening firefighters for all sorts of cancers and finding that it’s not just the rare ones that firefighters are more susceptible to.
Recently, she screened some firefighters for rectal cancer, which usually does not appear in adults until their 40s, but she found signs of it in two firefighters who are 30.
As for the multiple myeloma that Thompson has? She calls it an “occupational disease.”
There are only about 200,000 cases of multiple myeloma diagnosed each year, and firefighters are at a two-and-a-half times greater risk of getting it than anyone else, Shukla said. Additionally, the people who usually get it are generally elderly.
Since multiple myeloma involves intensive chemotherapy, it also puts patients at a much higher risk for infections due to a suppressed immune system. It also opens them up for secondary forms of cancer, Shukla said.
If you would have asked Shukla a year ago if she felt there was a connection to firefighting and cancers, she said she would have been skeptical. But working with the firefighters and seeing it first hand has changed that for her, something she is encouraging her colleagues to do.
“I’m already kinda paranoid as a cancer doctor,” Shukla said. So, seeing what firefighters were exposed to “was shocking.”
Boyer v. Glendale
In 2017, Boyer was able to get House Bill 2161 passed.
The bill was heavily opposed by the insurance lobby and the state’s two largest business advocacy groups, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, though cities were neutral on the bill.
The bill lists several diseases that are presumed to be occupational diseases for firefighters, including multiple myeloma, and states that treatment for them should be covered.
Boyer said he was contacted about Thompson’s case a month ago, and was told the city was asking firefighters to identify which specific fire caused their cancer.
In a lengthy Aug. 12 post on its website, the City of Glendale refuted Boyer’s claims, calling them “false” and “inaccurate.” It also created and distributed a video of Mayor Jerry Weiers reading the city’s statement and accusing Boyer of being “misinformed the public with fire union talking points and mistruths.”
The city also stated in its post that it follows the process laid out in the 2017 law by using a third-party administrator. Currently, Glendale uses CorVel, a company that has been criticized in the past for denying claims of first responders.
Glendale’s city attorney also responded to Boyer’s tweets in an Aug. 7 letter in which he argues that the city is following the law and is not denying any claims.
Glendale also disputed Boyer’s claim that the city cancelled the meeting. Rather, it says that Boyer refused to meet at Glendale City Hall and “demanded” that city officials meet with him at his legislative office in downtown Phoenix.
Glendale also accused Boyer of “raising his voice” and “threatening” a city employee by using “the significant tools that were available to him as a state legislator” to force Glendale to cover Thompson’s cancer treatment.
Glendale took this to mean that he would initiate a SB1487 investigation, which allows state lawmakers to ask the attorney general to investigate if a city or municipality is breaking state law. If the AG determines the city is violating a law, the city faces losing millions of dollars in state revenues.
“After his refusal to meet with us at City Hall, Senator Boyer and his political allies… immediately began their personal attacks against the City, the elected officials and staff on social media,” the city wrote on its website.
“To be sure, my criticism was blunt, because I feel strongly that Arizona’s cities should follow the law,” Boyer said in a written response to Glendale’s response. “To be honest, their attacks on me come as no surprise. That’s just politics. When the facts aren’t on your side, you attack people and do everything in your power to change the subject.”
In Boyer’s eyes, Glendale is not following the law that obligates the city to cover Thompson’s treatment. But Glendale sees it as following the law and going through the process as outlined.
For Thompson, it doesn’t matter who said what. What matters is getting his treatment covered, and the process is not making that easy.
Right now he is preparing to appeal the denial, which means going before the Industrial Commission. If that doesn’t go his way, he’ll have to take it to court, all while undergoing chemo.
“What to do now is the million dollar question,” Thompson said.
As Boyer and Glendale fight over who said what, firefighters are still trying to find ways to minimize the risk of their jobs.
“So many things we encounter that catch on fire are made with chemicals,” Jefferies, the head of the firefighters union, said.
Despite wearing protective gear that keeps many inhalants out of their respiratory systems, Jefferies and others have been noticing something that has long been ignored: their clothes.
Firefighters will go in and out of a fire multiple times, getting smoke, soot and all sorts of things all over their firefighting gear.
Then they may take one of those layers off after the fire has died down and get other materials on their clothes. Then they’ll go back to the truck, take off those clothes and put them in the truck, riding with the fumes and soot back to the station.
That exposure is something that Jefferies and others are now trying to think about. Even Thompson has been thinking more about his possible exposures.
“I used to get ready right behind the truck,” Thompson said. His fire engine ran on diesel, and diesel exhaust has been connected in part to multiple myeloma.
Now, firefighters are working to clean their clothes right after a fire using dish soap, and sometimes industrial cleaners, in order to cut down on their exposure. More research is being done to look at this possible health connection.
Firefighters are also working on screening themselves earlier, something Shukla is pushing for, as well.
“It’s much much cheaper to screen people,” Shukla said, adding that getting ahead of a problem will be cheaper for cities and firefighters alike in the long run.
But for now, Shukla and Jefferies are just going to continue to work with firefighters to get them screened in order to catch more of these diseases early.
“[I]f there is a message I could send out, it would be that, for 26 years, I answered the call. When those tones went out, I answered the call,” Thompson said, his voice cracking. “I’ve had the most rewarding career I could ever ask for, but it comes at a price… I want people to know I’m not a claim number, I’m not a statistic. I have an occupational cancer, and I want the city to see me as more than just a claim and to help me please to stay alive, literally.”