The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash.
SPOKANE, Wash. — The idea came to Michelle Phay while climbing 2,744 steps of the Manitou Incline in Colorado Springs. Her mind was on the next day’s tribute for her late husband, David Phay, a longtime Spokane Valley firefighter. She and others had gone to Colorado in September for the International Association of Fire Fighters Memorial service for members after line-of-duty deaths.
A fitness instructor and nurse, Phay wanted to go up the incline’s gain of 2,000-feet elevation. On that climb, she thought about a promise she’d made to her husband just before he died in December 2018. When inspiration struck, she texted his colleague, George Hedeback.
“I texted George and said, ‘How about if I do a stair climb in David’s honor?’ ” said Phay, 52. “I’m climbing in order to start a conversation that I might otherwise not know how to start.”
On March 8, Phay plans to tackle that steep challenge, this time wearing firefighter gear that once protected her husband. She entered the American Lung Association’s Fight for Air Climb for him and to bring awareness about the loss of firefighters dying from exposure to work-related toxins. That was her promise to him.
“The last week that he was in the hospital, we had lots of discussions,” she said. “In that last night, he asked if I would somehow bring attention to the fact that our firefighters are dying from exposure, so that if one other firefighter didn’t have to go through what he did, it would be worth it.”
In his healthy years, her husband had wanted to do a firefighters’ stair climb but never did. The ALA challenge is open to anyone, and her pledge is to climb 80 floors in Portland’s U.S. Bancorp Tower. Phay has trained about four months for the event, sometimes late at night on a gym’s stair climber while wearing a compressed air tank and other gear.
In Portland, she plans to wear some of David’s protective gear – though she’s only 5 feet tall – while carrying his helmet and mask along with his boots. It all weighs about 45 pounds. Recently, she’s carried gear to climb a downtown building’s stairs, drawing a few conversations already.
She and other firefighter colleagues of David’s believe toxin exposure over the years brought him down at age 57. Retired in 2015, he had worked more than 28 years as a firefighter, paramedic, lieutenant and captain in Spokane Valley.
His cause of death: hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, also known as HLH, a rare acquired autoimmune disease. Along with toxin-related awareness, he’d asked her to push for research and cure for the disease.
“David’s hope was that in starting the conversation, research into his disease on an intensive basis might start in order to save his fellow firefighters,” she said. “We truly believe it was exposure-related.”
Hedeback, Spokane Valley Fire captain and a union officer, said for about 10 years, department protections have been in place against exposure to fire-related carcinogens that can cling to uniforms and equipment. Now, firefighters change out of turnouts and bag them right after fires.
The bagged garments go into a separate truck compartment, so they’re not in the cab, and they’re laundered at stations, he said. Firefighters all have a second set of turnouts. Another challenge is possible effects from longtime exposure. When news coverage first ran about Phay’s illness, Hedeback said two other local firefighters died within a week from cancer.
“We’ve had practices in place for 10 years, but sometimes the damage is already done,” he said. “There was a big push, what are you doing about it? We’re doing everything we know how to do.
“Dave had a very unique and rare disease, and because there are so few, we can’t prove anyone gets it a lot, let alone that firefighters get it more. The state wants us to go back and look – tell us what fire, tell us what chemical, tell what the exposure was.”
However, Phay said in her research, she’s beginning to find evidence. Her goal is to have HLH added to the list of presumptive diseases among firefighters that are considered for line-of-duty benefits after death.
“I have found other firefighters about the same age, about the same service time,” she said. “I’m looking in other states and other departments with equal size. It’s a matter of percentages. Do firefighters have a higher percentage of a certain disease?”
Hedeback said another example affects female firefighters, and industry members suspect higher rates of breast and ovarian cancer.
“We haven’t had until the past 10, 15 years enough female firefighters A, working in jobs and B, unfortunately getting sick enough, that we can show they’re at a higher rate than women who aren’t firefighters,” he said.
Phay said her husband wanted her to share an overall message that firefighters always take precautions around toxins and to care for their general health.
“He desired that other firefighters should care for themselves physically, mentally and emotionally,” she said. People often don’t realize that firefighters’ heart rates remain higher after an incident, they can have trouble sleeping and other stress-related issues, Phay added.
Plus, buildings have gone from having mostly wood to more synthetics and plastics that are toxic in fires, she said. Her husband’s second job at the station was to clean all the air packs and masks, she said. “I watched him clean masks, and he never wore a respirator; he never wore gloves. My thing is if you’re cleaning something, wear gloves and a mask.
“He said, ‘Tell them safety first, take care of your lungs, take care of your skin because of all the absorption’ because they didn’t used to do that, and to take care around the stress.”
Phay describes herself as someone who prefers to be private, so the public arena isn’t comfortable. But David asked. She’ll think of that on the climb, which Phay plans to record with a Go Pro camera.
“I’ll think about the promise I made to Dave that I would still be his voice even in his death. It was really important to him. It was, as he said, one of his last orders as captain before I literally got the red hat.
“It’s been a way for people to start to ask questions, and it’s easier for me to open up and start talking about it – what it’s like not only for the firefighters, but also for their families. I’d really like to open the conversation with the state.”
Phay hopes to reach out to firefighter widows or widowers. She’s mindful of the close relationships forged between David and other firefighters over years of service.
“There’s a whole conversation to be had about first responders and what they go through, what it’s like to live with them and to go through that process and grieve with 170 other people who are your family but not your family because of all his brothers on the department. They’re grieving, too.”
He started at 19 as a fire volunteer in Kootenai County, she said. After retirement, he taught fire science classes at Spokane Valley Tech and remained involved with a firefighter benevolent fund. Phay doesn’t expect the climb to be easy. She’s aware of the heat and weight of the gear. The compressed air tank is not David’s but one that he would have worn about 12 years ago.
“I’m climbing in well-worn gear to represent the years of dedication and service – first, for David’s years of service, and for all firefighters.”
“It’s the gear that was his protection. The boots that he literally walked in, the helmet which showed the rank he was blessed and very proud to have achieved and the shirt which bears not only his name but Valley Fire, which he was proud to be a part of.”
©2020 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.)