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Fallen firefighter's battle with HIV: Family reflects on diagnosis, belated honors

It has been four years since South King Fire and Rescue veteran Doug Waller died as a result of contracting HIV on the job, but his death is just now being recognized as having occurred in the line of duty. - Courtesy photo
It has been four years since South King Fire and Rescue veteran Doug Waller died as a result of contracting HIV on the job, but his death is just now being recognized as having occurred in the line of duty.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

Doug Waller didn’t hesitate. When he and fellow firefighters responded to that call and found a man bleeding profusely, they went to work. It didn’t matter who the man was, or what he looked like; helping him was their top priority, and they did it selflessly, without regard to their own safety.

As Waller’s wife Sharon recounts it, the man didn’t tell his saviors that he had HIV until after they were done. When they asked why he didn’t say something sooner, he told them, “I didn’t think you’d work on me.”

“They jumped right in to protect the guy,” she said.

When Waller came home after that incident, he was angry, Sharon Waller said. Angry that the guy didn’t just tell them upfront. Didn’t he know they would help him no matter what? Waller told his wife he would have to get tested for HIV.

The test was negative. Waller carried on with his life. He retired from South King Fire and Rescue in 2000 and continued being Doug. He would mow every lawn in the neighborhood, and he indulged in his love of working on hydroplane race crews. He spent time with his family and was a sort of mentor to friends of his sons Trevor and Steven — the cool dad on the block whom the kids looked up to and went to with their worries.

It wasn’t until a Sunday in August 2006, the day Waller picked up his tickets to Seafair, that he started to get sick. At first, doctors thought it was a stroke. Waller could not move his body quite right, and he was having trouble writing. A few weeks later, when he wasn’t getting any better, a doctor at the University of Washington Medical Center suggested an HIV test. Sharon and Doug tossed it off.

“That’s a wasted one,” she remembered thinking about the test.

It wasn’t. By the end of September, Waller had entered Bailey-Boushay House, a residential HIV/AIDS care facility in Seattle. At age 59, he died on Oct. 31, 2006.

It’s hard to pinpoint just when Doug Waller contracted HIV, and it could have been from that one call when he encountered the bleeding man who feared telling his rescuers about his status, as if they would have let him die. One thing is for sure: Waller contracted HIV on the job. His line of duty death was confirmed by the state in 2008, and he’s just now being honored for his service.

On Sept. 11, a ceremony was held in Colorado Springs, Colo., where Waller’s name is inscribed on the International Association of Firefighters’ Fallen Firefighter Memorial.. It is now definite that next October, he will be added to Washington state’s memorial in Olympia, a pike pole — the tool firefighters use to poke holes in walls and ceilings — shrouded with ribbons bearing the names of fallen firefighters.

“We want to make sure that their lives and service to the community are honored,” said Pat Ellis, chaplain for the Kent Fire Department, and chair of the state memorial committee. “It's part of our tradition that our fallen firefighters will not be forgotten.”

After he was diagnosed, Sharon Waller said, her husband never expressed any regret about his career choice. And he wasn’t angry about his diagnosis. He was worried for his family, for their health and that they would think he had been unfaithful.

“I never heard him express any anger,” she said.

Back when her husband was tested for the first time, Sharon Waller said, times were different. People had to ask a doctor for the test, and there was a big window when a test might not detect HIV.

There are better safeguards now when an HIV exposure occurs. Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is a course of drugs that can be taken directly after exposure and can reduce the chances of HIV infection. South King Fire and Rescue's standard operating guidelines contains a recommendation for PEP treatment for employees considered at high risk of contracting a blood-borne pathogen after an exposure, said spokeswoman Kirsti Weaver. This guideline includes all possible blood-borne pathogens, and was last updated in 2006 and 2009, Weaver said.

As Waller grew sicker, he requested that he be taken off HIV medication. He did not want to prolong the sickness, which he made clear to his family and doctors. Three days before he died, Sharon Waller said, in his crowded room at Bailey-Boushay, it was jokingly suggested that it would be a perfect time to arm wrestle with Doug — he was a body builder, a big, strong guy. She remembers her husband slapping his hand on the table, still ready for a duel.

Years later, when Sharon, Steven and Trevor went to Colorado Springs for his memorial, they surmised Doug would have enjoyed it, with flyovers from Air Force jets and long processions of bagpipers and fire trucks.

“He would have been amazed,” Sharon Waller said. “Doug told us, ‘that’s what we do for each other.’”

Correction

An article Nov. 3 about former South King Fire District firefighter Doug Waller should have said that it is unclear how he was infected with HIV. Family members have reported remembering an incident where Waller treated a bleeding man who said after the treatment that he had HIV. Fire officials have also not been able to pinpoint how exactly Waller was infected.

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