It has been almost 9-1/2 years since Daryl Brenneise, a captain with the North Little Rock Fire Department, died after contracting Papillary Carcinoma, a common type of thyroid cancer that has been linked to chemical flame retardants. Diagnosed in 2003, Brenneise died on June 9, 2008, at the age of 55.
Since his death, Brenneise's wife of 35 years, Gwen Brenneise, has learned that her husband's disease was possibly connected to his exposure to toxic chemicals he encountered while fighting fires. A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) suggests that 68 percent of all firefighters will be diagnosed with cancer during their career, with many of those cancers directly linked to chemicals encountered during structure fires, with those carcinogens finding their way into the body by being inhaled or through absorption through the skin.
From the time Daryl was diagnosed until he died, Gwen said she had no knowledge of any link between cancer and her husband's job, and said she didn't know what he may or may not have known.
“He loved the fire department and he never said anything about it,” Gwen said.
She said she first met her husband on a blind date that was set up by a friend of hers.
“He was out at Little Rock Air Force Base and his parents were in Knoxville,” she said. “He had orders for Bentwaters, England when we got married. He left in August, about two weeks after we got married and I followed at Christmas.”
After leaving the Air Force, the couple came back to central Arkansas, and Daryl was hired by the North Little Rock Fire Department, his firefighter career with the department beginning in June 1977. Gwen said he never regretted the decision.
“He loved the fire service,” she said. “He loved serving people, helping people. He went on all kinds of calls and he never got aggravated with people. He just wanted to be of service. I think it's something like a calling.”
She said during the final two weeks of his life, when he was under hospice care and hooked up to a morphine pump to control pain, when a hospice nurse took note of his profession.
“She said to him, 'so, you were a firefighter?'” Gwen recalled, then said, “He looked up at her and said, 'No. I AM a firefighter.' It was special to him.”
Although she spoke of her husband and his career with obvious pride, Gwen expressed relief that their son, Daren, 35, did not follow in his father's footsteps but elected to go into nursing instead.
“Daryl loved the fire service and wouldn't have chosen anything else but I'm thankful that Daren didn't follow his dad's path,” she said. “I might be looking at this again. Of course, anything can happen at any time, but knowing that his dad died of cancer and probably picked it up from the mess he was around through the years, I'm very thankful that Daren is in the medical field and isn't a firefighter. That's because of all I know now that I didn't know before.”
“Daryl had a beautiful tenor voice. He sang in the choir at our church [Zion Hill Baptist] and sang specials quite often,” Gwen said. “He played the guitar and did solo music for Christmas and Easter. He loved to hunt and fish, and we went to deer camp. He just loved life. He loved the fire department and he loved life.”
But over time, the cancer slowly ravaged his body, slowly stealing from him the things he loved.
One night, when Daryl was at a conference in Dallas, Gwen called him during the night after someone threw a rock through their son's bedroom window. When he answered the phone, he was unable to talk above a whisper. Initially diagnosed as laryngitis, it was discovered the cancer had damaged his vocal chords beyond repair.
“Cancer stole his voice,” she said. “He could barely talk above a whisper. With his voice, the cancer took away from him his singing. He always dreamed a making above a captain with the fire department, but with his voice gone he couldn't even be on a truck anymore because he couldn't communicate with his men. So that was over.”
Although she never connected his cancer with his job while he was alive, but since her husband's death, Gwen said she has learned a great deal about the links that have been discovered.
“We didn't know anything. Or if he did, he never told me. He didn't like to worry me,” she said.
In November of 2003, Daryl underwent surgery to remove the tumors from his thyroid and from inside his chest cavity. But in 2006, his cancer was found to have returned.
“They cracked his chest again and removed all the cancer they could find from his neck and his chest,” she said. Then, in 2007, she received a call from his station house and was told Daryl had been taken to UAMS complaining of severe pain in his leg. For some time, he attempted to prop his leg up for relief so he could do his work.
“You have to understand, this man was a firefighter and he wasn't going down,” Gwen said. But the disease was taking its toll, with cancer having moved into his left femur, resulting in the bone breaking. In April of 2007, surgeons implanted a rod to stabilize the bone.
Not long after, Daryl began showing signs of confusion and problems with coordination.
“He was out in the garage doing something one day and he was trying to tie a fire department knot that he had done for years,” she said. “He mentioned it so they did a brain scan and discovered spots on his brain, too.”
Placed into hospice care, one evening Daryl's speech began slurring. Tests revealed that he had suffered a mini-stroke. Through all of this, Gwen said his fellow firefighters stuck with him.
“They were wonderful. When Daryl had surgery, they were there. The chief and the assistant chief, they worked with Daryl,” Gwen recalled. “He knew he was going to have to give it up. He was a shift captain and after it was in his brain he wasn't going to be able to concentrate and hold up his end.”
Nine years after Daryl's death, the memories are still fresh; recalling the last few months of his life brings grief bubbling to the surface, still raw.
“One day the doctor looked at me and said, 'You're going to have to let him go. He's not going to give up until you give up. And I said, 'no, I'm not doing that.' But you know, you watch someone suffer and go down,” Gwen said, her voice cracking and trailing off before continuing, voice shaking with emotion.
“But you watch them and there comes a time when you want them to have some peace.”
She said Daryl asked that the fire chief and assistant chief come out to their house so that Daryl could discuss some plans that had suddenly taken on a new urgency.
“Daryl wanted to know what his benefits were, how I was going to be situated, and he also wanted to make his funeral arrangements, so that's what they did,” she said. “After that, he agreed to hospice care and he lived at home under hospice care for two weeks until he passed away.”
In the months before he died, Daryl took care of what he could and made sure that Gwen would have the assistance she would need with things when problems arose after he was gone.
“He had a new roof put on the house and he took me to some kind of counseling the city offered and we made a game plan,” said Gwen. “If this happens, call this person, if that happens call that person, and you can always call the fire department and they'll point you in the right direction.”
Nine years later, Gwen said those bonds are still strong.
“I can call Gerald Tucker or John Pflasterer if I need something and they'll be out here,” she said. “That bond never breaks.”