In the days following his 2015 finish of the LLS Firefighter Stairclimb, Eric Rickert, Bellevue Fire Department firefighter and son of South King Fire and Rescue commissioner John Rickert, went from being a participant to a patient.
Donning full turnout gear and breathing apparatus, firefighters climb 69 flights of stairs to the 73rd floor of the Columbia Center tower in Seattle for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, which has raised more than $20 million since its inception in 1991 for blood cancer research, patient services and policy goal advocacy.
When Eric Rickert’s day-after symptom of extreme abdominal pain didn’t improve with normal routine treatments, he underwent an ultrasound and a CT scan, where “on that same day, I knew that I had some form because they could see the tumor.”
About a month later, the Bellevue firefighter was diagnosed with 4 mantle cell lymphoma, non-Hodgkin’s B-cell lymphoma — a rare and incurable, yet treatable disease.
“The hardest part was the time between knowing I had some form of lymphoma and having a treatment plan,” said Eric Rickert, a father of two.
During the spring and summer of 2015, he underwent six rounds of monthly chemo, blood transfusions, and an auto stem cell bone marrow transplant in the care of Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.
“That made it much easier for me, mentally, to cope with things,” he said of continuing to work shifts with Bellevue Fire throughout his battle. “And to keep good spirits because I was busy, keeping a routine.”
And one year later, he was competing again in the stairclimb in March 2016.
“I was certainly a lot slower that year after coming back afterwards,” he joked. “It was a fun distraction and accomplishment to have to be able to say, ‘I did that.’”
Eric Rickert has been in remission since the end of 2016, and this year marks his eighth consecutive venture to climb for a cure.
“It’s the most fun and miserable thing you’re going to do,” Eric Rickert said. “There’s nothing enjoyable about the actual process, yet somehow people look forward to it every year, and do it again and again once they do it.”
A family that climbs together
“Well it’s cancer so … it sucks,” his younger brother and South King Fire and Rescue firefighter Ed Rickert chimed in.
Ed Rickert, a driver engineer who has been with SKFR for more than 25 years, started his career in the fire service a decade before his brother.
“I have done the stair climb in the past and had done it for all of the typical reasons that you would do it — benevolence, camaraderie, challenge, raising money for a good cause.”
After his brother’s diagnosis — and then the improvement in his health that allowed him to race again the following year — Ed Rickert said, “There was no other option than to say yes, I am absolutely doing [the climb] this year.”
During the climb, firefighters wear a thermal layer with an outer protective layer in addition to a vapor barrier, the suffering doubled by the added heat stress inside the stairwell.
“It’s like wearing an oven mitt over your whole body and then wrapping yourself in plastic and then breathing against pressure wearing 50 pounds of gear,” Ed Rickert said.
Over the past few years, Ed Rickert has endured the pain of both yearly stair climbs and watching his brother fight against the very disease they are fundraising for.
“It’s definitely taken on a new meaning,” Ed Rickert said. “And the fact that it has nothing to do with how fast you get up the stairs, but how much money you can raise.”
Because of his brother’s journey, Ed Rickert said he’s much more motivated in the stairwell.
“You can’t quit,” he said.
More than 2,000 firefighters from around the world participate in the stair climb annually. Eric Rickert is one of 28 Bellevue Fire Department members, along with South King Fire’s 14-member team who will take to the tower Sunday, March 8 for the 29th annual event.
For some, the climb is minimal in discomfort compared to the disease.
On the way up at every floor, firefighters climb past photos of individuals who are battling cancer and memorials for those who have died. Some firefighters tape pictures of loved ones battling cancer to their helmets, said third-year team captain James Hampson with SKFR.
“I can put myself through some pain for a cause that’s bigger than myself,” said SKFR team member Lt. Brian Moore. “It’s the least that any of us can do. … This pain is nothing to the pain that people who are afflicted with this are feeling.”
The health of the firefighters
Of the population diagnosed with cancer, firefighters have approximately a 60% greater chance of having the disease, SKFR fire commissioner John Rickert shared.
In recent history, nearly a dozen South King members have been diagnosed with a form of cancer during their careers, along with countless members who have family, spouses or friends diagnosed with cancer.
“It’s emotional for me,” John Rickert said. “It’s my son that came down with the disease.”
It was a difficult and scary diagnosis for the entire Rickert family as Eric Rickert was always healthy and fit, he added.
John Rickert retired as a captain with SKFR in 2000 and has served on the board of fire commissioners for 16 years.
When he started with the department in 1968, there was no cancer awareness, he said.
More than 30 years ago, volunteer firefighters brought their unwashed gear home after fires or stored it in their bedrooms to be ready at a moment’s notice in case of emergency.
Modern homes and buildings are often constructed with synthetic and plastic materials, which create more smoke when burning and as materials burn, they release a number of carcinogens including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), according to the LLS organization website.
While exposure to some PAHs can cause cancer, firefighters may also encounter carcinogens such as asbestos and diesel exhaust, and are inhaled or absorbed through the skin.
The decontamination processes now look vastly different than in the 1960s, or even 10 years ago.
After a fire, firefighters are thoroughly sprayed down with a fire hose in their gear and once back at the station, that gear is put into a specialized washing machine to rid the hazardous chemicals.
A second set of clean gear, along with a backup protective hood that covers the neck, is then used. Baby wipes are also kept on hand at emergency scenes to clean carcinogens off of the face, hands, or any body part possibly exposed during a fire.
As the fire service learns more about cancer-causing agents at emergency scenes, it becomes increasingly obvious how often and repeatedly firefighters are exposed to health dangers.
“It’s still a real problem in the fire service, and more and more departments are becoming more and more aware of what they can do to help prevent that disease,” John Rickert said. “… That’s a priority of our department — to protect our people.”
So far, South King Fire has raised $10,220, just over halfway to the team’s total fundraising goal of $20,000.
For more information on this year’s stairclimb or to donate to the South King Fire and Rescue team, visit llswa.org and type in South King Fire and Rescue.