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home : opinions : columns   October 6, 2015

5/21/2013 12:12:00 PM
Column: Cruel cancer takes away firefighter's job

Craig Sterrett
News Editor

Gary Eccles dropped in at the Peru fire station Friday and things had changed. Not physically, and not the whole atmosphere.
It was just that he no longer was one of the emergency workers there.
Friday was almost as hard for him as one day earlier this spring when he was working, had chest pains and a doctor told him he couldn’t be a firefighter anymore.
“The doctors said I couldn’t go back to work: ‘you’re done,’” Eccles said. That day was an occasion for weeping for him, but so was Friday, his first official day since using up all of his vacation and becoming a retiree.
Now the 23-year Peru firefighter, 12 of them as chief, and seven previous years paid-on-call for La Salle, will just keep fighting the cancer that has spread and is destroying his lungs.
Firefighter Rick Abbott, who was hired full-time by Peru the same year as Eccles, said dealing with Eccles’ physical demise is something new for the firefighters. They haven’t dealt with a comrade disabled by cancer.
“It’s an eye-opener for us,” said Abbott, adding that Eccles has a great attitude about it all. “His spirits are good. The cancer continues to grow. He’s fighting it.”
Abbott, also a union representative, said Eccles dropped in Friday to thank him for helping him be able to retire and to thank fellow firefighters for fundraisers they’ve organized to help him and his family cover travel costs for his treatments in Chicago. He said he and his wife can’t convey how grateful they are to the community and firefighters of the region for all their financial and emotional support.
Eccles’ cancer may date back seven years.
“At first it was diagnosed as a blocked salivary gland. Everything came back OK. Then it got bigger (two years ago). They took it out and found out it was this cancer (adenoid cystic carcinoma),” he said. He was able to keep handling many firefighter tasks until about two months ago when he had the chest pain.
“After five years they found it had spread to my lungs. It’s not curable. It’s stage 4,” he said.
He receives experimental treatments at University of Chicago. “Their hope is to slow the growth… Really, give me more time.
“This cancer is very tricky,” Eccles said one treatment will work for a few months, and then another will work for a while. “Every six months or so, the doctors try a different treatment.”
Coping with not being a firefighter is as difficult for him as fighting the cancer.  He was a dockworker and forklift operator for Consolidated Freightways in the early 1980s when he decided to become a part-time firefighter. He desired the variety of tasks and challenges firefighters have. He truly enjoyed the work. If he was seen smiling at a fire, it likely was involuntary; he enjoyed putting out fires, finding their source, figuring out how to free someone trapped in a car accident.
In the mid-1980s, he attended fire science courses Spring Valley fire chief Gene Scheri taught at Illinois Valley Community College. At one point, more than a decade later, he and his fellow IVCC graduates all were fire chiefs in La Salle, Oglesby, Ottawa, Princeton, Wyanet, Mendota, Marseilles and Elmhurst, he said. That’s an amazing support system and network for problem-solving ideas or advice.
The camaraderie, the challenges of figuring out solutions in emergencies and the chance to help people all made his job rewarding. And help people he did, being credited with three lives saved and, along with three fellow firefighters, receiving recognition from the State of Illinois Medal of Honor committee and a Meritorious Service Award for heroism at a house fire.
“I’m very fortunate to be a part of group that’s so caring and dedicated. Somebody once said, ‘Do what you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life,’ And I felt that way going to work at the fire department.”
Eccles doesn’t want to feel like he’s on the outside of the firehouse looking in.
“I’m going to miss being there. That’s the hardest part,” said Eccles. “They told me I can come down and wash a truck anytime. I may take them up on that.” 

Craig Sterrett can be reached at (815) 220-6935

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