In 2011, the world changed dramatically for North Little Rock Fire Department Captain Jerry Robinson when a routine wellness checkup revealed elevated levels of prostate specific antigens (PSAs). Further examination confirmed that Robinson had prostate cancer.
“They told me at the time not to worry about it, that prostate cancer is extremely slow growing,” said Robinson. “Well, mine wasn’t slow. Mine started metastasizing.”
Robinson said the cancer began spreading so quickly that a planned operation to remove his prostate had to be scrapped when the cancer was found to have spread to his lymph nodes. Instead, Robinson began what would ultimately total 41 rounds of radiation treatments, after which his cancer receded for about a year.
But after a time, the cancer returned, and the news wasn’t good.
“About a year or two went by and the cancer metastasized again, this time in my sternum,” said Robinson. “This time it was in my bones, which made it a Stage Four cancer. I started a new treatment, doing white blood cell therapy, and that worked for a year or two, but the cancer came back.”
Once again, the cancer metastasized into Robinson’s sternum, so his doctors tried intravenous radiation administration, which he said initially worked, but the progress was short-lived .
“That worked for about six months and then the cancer returned, into my sternum again. And this latest bout, beginning in about the middle of 2016, in my sternum again, and this time they decided to do surgery, to remove the affected part of my sternum,” he said.
His operation took place at the end of July, sidelining Robinson for nine weeks as he recuperated from the surgery to remove a two-inch section of his sternum. He said his oncologist met with a group of oncologists that make up a “tumor board,” specifically for the purpose of discussing difficult cases in an effort to gain insight into how they may proceed with treatment. He said when his case was outlined and the assembled doctors were told about the cancer that kept moving into his sternum, the recommendation was unanimous.
“They said take it out. Just take it out. Don’t get me wrong, you need your sternum, a lot of things are connected there, but you can live without a portion of it. It’s not life or death,” he said, but added that it was a major surgical procedure that left him unable to sleep comfortably and curtailed many of his favorite physical activities, such as bike riding, to avoid risking serious injury.
“If you press on your sternum with one hand and move your arm in a circle,” he said, “you can feel it. Every movement of your arm centers right there. It takes a while for scar tissue to grow and anchor everything back. I still have trouble sleeping, it’s hard to get comfortable, but It’s out of me so I’ll put up with some discomfort.”
However, even though the surgeon removed the cancer in his body with the removal of that section of bone, the million dollar question is how long it will stay gone. Asked about his prognosis, Robinson was matter-of-fact.
“They don’t know,” he said. “The initial assessment was three years, and I’m six years into this now. I get a monthly injection into my abdomen and I take chemotherapy every day. Any given day it could come up that I have another metastases, maybe on my spine or on my pelvis. It could be anywhere in my skeletal system now.”
In the meantime, even though he has health insurance with the fire department, a captain’s salary only goes so far, and Robinson said what he sends to pay on his portion of the bill barely makes a dent.
“But it’s the best I can do. What’s going to have to happen is they’ll have to wait until I die and my wife gets that money (the designated beneficiary can file a claim for a $150,000 death benefit upon the death of the covered firefighter with the State Claims Commission. The award is dependent on a determination that the firefighter’s cancer is linked to the job).
Robinson’s experience, he said, has been something of a hellish waiting game as he continues his chemotherapy, monthly injections, and endless rounds of checkups and tests that track the progression of the disease.
“It has been from day one. You know, everyone has a sense that one day they’re gonna die, but when you know it’s going to be sooner and you know what’s going to kill you, it gets a lot less mysterious,” he said. “And you can’t help thinking about it every day and the only ones who can really understand it are other firefighters who are going through the same thing.”
To that end, Robinson said he is in regular contact with another North Little Rock firefighter who has been stricken with throat cancer. The two are in contact at least once a month, and currently, Robinson said, they are the only two firefighters in the city who are actively being treated for cancer. But, when asked, he said he knew of a number of firefighters who had been treated for, and died of cancer during his tenure with the department.
“Oh my gosh. In 23 years, probably a dozen,” he said, adding that because of other factors, it was impossible to know how many of those firefighters may have contracted the disease due to their jobs, and how many due to other factors.
“You have to remember that everybody smoked back then. We’re talking about a bunch of old Arkansans,” he said. “Hardly anyone smokes anymore but now the fires are different. The smoke is much more toxic. So much is made from synthetics now that the fires are much more serious.”
At the time of his diagnosis six years ago, Robinson said toxic smoke was a concern, but the perception was that it was a problem mainly for larger departments. And 23 years ago, when he joined the department, it wasn’t even on the radar.
“I didn’t join the department expecting to get cancer,” he said. “But when you have Stage Four Cancer, you have a burden that you carry with you that won’t go away. And your family, it’s been very hard on my wife, who has been right with me every step of the way. I’m five years out from retirement and just speculating, I probably won’t make it.”
Still, Robinson said most days he is physically able to give his job 100 percent, and on days when he isn’t quite himself, the two other men in the three-man engine company he commands take up some of the slack.
“I don’t mean to imply that I don’t carry my weight,” Robinson said. “On days when I’m truly not up to the job, I’ll take a sick day. I won’t jeopardize the lives of these men because I’m too proud to say I’m not up to it.”
It is obvious that the regard he has for Lt. Gary Williams and Firefighter Ty Haddock is mutual, and the two men engage in lively, bantering conversation with each other and their captain to help keep Robinson’s spirits high and stress level low, and they watch him for any signs of physical distress.
At one point, Haddock breaks into the interview.
“I just want to make sure that everyone knows we have the best captain in the North Little Rock Fire Department,” he said. “This man (indicating Robinson) is dedicated to the job, he does his research, and he makes sure he passes what he learns on to us to help us stay safe and to be more effective in our jobs. Don’t tell him I said this, but he’s a great captain, top shelf.”
Haddock then ambled off toward the garage, leaving Robinson, who was standing within two feet during the whole exchange, looking bemused.
“We are a family,” he said. “I actually see these guys more than I see my wife. We work together, we live together, and we look out for one another. Because that’s how it is. That’s why I love this job.”