When Robert Laws, a captain with the Jacksonville Fire Department, retired from active duty, he was looking forward to his retirement. He officially stepped down from the department in June 2012, having been battling fires with the department for nearly 30 years.
Eighteen months later, he was in a battle for his life, having been diagnosed with Cholangiocarcinoma, cancer of the bile duct.
“There was no cancer in his family as far back as we could go,” said Laws' wife, Hollie. “We knew where it came from.”
“Where it came from,” Hollie Laws is certain, was his job, a certainty that is shared by the fire service nationally in light of studies showing firefighters are up to five times more likely to develop certain cancers due to the environmental hazards they encounter on the job. The cancer that invaded Robert Laws' body was a particularly aggressive form that is believed by researchers with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to be caused by chemicals used in many building materials, furniture, and appliances. These chemicals are released during structure fires and sent airborne in the smoke.
A year-and-a-half after Laws retired, a mass was discovered in his liver during a routine medical exam. The day was Dec. 4. He was scheduled to undergo a biopsy the same day.
“When it came back it was cancer,” she said. “He began treatment the day of the biopsy. He wasn't supposed to live two months and he fought it for almost a year to the day. He passed away January 1, 2015.”
Laws had a previous bout with cancer, Hollie said, having been diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1999, his treatment continuing through the following year.
“That's another cancer that a lot of firefighters get,” she said.
Later in 2015, the General Assembly approved formation of the Firefighter Cancer Review Panel, a seven member panel that makes recommendations to the State Claims Commission regarding claims of occupational cancer related to firefighters. If the panel recommends a finding that a firefighter whose case is being heard suffered a line of duty death due to carcinogen exposure, the claim then goes to the Claims Commission with the recommendation that the commission allow payment of a $150,000 death benefit to the firefighter's spouse, next of kin, or designated survivor.
The Firefighter's Cancer Review Panel reviewed a claim filed by Hollie Laws, the first claim received under the new law. The panel recommended to the Claims Commission that Laws receive the maximum award of $150,000, making Robert Laws' illness the first case of cancer in an Arkansas firefighter approved for payment of the death benefit.
She received the first of three installments in April of this year. The benefit is structured to pay out over a three year period, but Laws received a second installment in July and is set to receive the final installment next year, which she attributed to the almost two-year process that ensued after the claim was filed.
“It helped out a lot once I got it,” said Laws, but said the time had exacted a financial toll. “I lost my house and my car six months after I lost him, but it did help out once I received it.”
“It was explained to me that because I was the first claim, they wanted to make sure everything was done accurately,” she said. “I understand that. I wasn't rushing it because the purpose for it taking so long was for a good reason, so I didn't have a problem with that.”
Reminiscing about her husband, Laws described him as a natural leader who stayed in top physical shape and was a dedicated firefighter who loved the fire service.
“He was your model image of a firefighter; six-foot-five, could bench press a house. He claimed to not like kids or animals but he would be the first one to put an oxygen mask on a dog,” she said. “I actually had pictures on my old phone of him resuscitating a dog at a house fire. He had a heart the size of Texas.”
Asked what his favorite pastime was, Hollie Laws laughed and said, “Working out. He was one of the trainers at the fire department and he absolutely loved working out.”
Additionally, Laws said her husband spent time with her three sons and that he also did yard work with an almost fanatical attention to detail.
“If all the lines weren't right after he finished mowing, he'd mow it again,” she said. “It was just very important to him that the yard look good.”
As the year progressed, Laws said she and her husband stayed in good spirits as his strength and endurance seemed to stay stable and a procedure performed to reduce blood flow to the part of his liver where the tumor was contained seemed to have had a positive effect.
“We thought we had it beat in June when they did the chemoembolization,” she said. “His tumor markers went down, his white blood cell count went down, his blood work was looking better. I really thought we had it beat.”
But, unknown to either of them, far from having beaten the disease, Robert Laws was rapidly moving into the end stages of the disease, and of his life. The next three months would be filled with ups and downs.
In October, Hollie Laws said, her husband's cancer marker levels began to rise and continued to do so despite changes in his diet, so he was set to undergo another procedure in which chemicals intended to arrest the tumor were to be injected directly into his liver.
“Fifteen minutes after they started the doctor came out to the waiting room and said his entire liver was just eaten up with tumors,” she said. “In November he went in to receive platelets and he walked out saying he felt great, like he wasn't even sick. In December, we'd been in the hospital a few days with his magnesium and potassium levels out of whack and he couldn't receive chemo until his levels were under control.”
Robert Laws began to show signs of being delusional in December and had to be coerced into going to the hospital. Given more platelets, Hollie Laws said he rallied briefly but in a two week period his levels of tumor markers went from the mid-70s (39 is considered normal) to over 8,000. At that point, Robert was bedridden and had ceased talking or responding to other people.
“It ate him up. He went from being able to hold a conversation to being unresponsive. He would open his eyes if you called his name but those last four days, he was completely unresponsive,” Hollie said. Then, with a heavy sigh, she continued, “He turned 49 on December 30 and he passed away on the first of January.
Even though Robert succumbed to his cancer, Hollie said he had beaten the odds. He died three days short of one year from his diagnosis on December 4 the previous year, fully 10 months longer than it had been expected he would survive.
After she received the first installment from the Claims Commission, Hollie said she made an immediate purchase of an extractor-washer and a drying cabinet designed to remove carcinogenic particles from the personal protective gear firefighters wear (called turnouts). In memory of her husband, she said she donated the appliances to the Jacksonville Fire Department, and had a plaque honoring Robert Laws attached to the drying cabinet.
Despite all he endured, Hollie Laws said her husband had never regretted becoming a firefighter. “He told me if he had it all to do over again he would changen't it,” she said. “He loved the fire service. His daddy was in it, His grandfather was a wildland firefighter. He had never wanted to do anything else.”