Cancer, it turns out, is a great way to meet some of the best, bravest, and most compassionate people in this community. They’re the nurses, doctors, pharmacists, aides, and admin staffers who strive to heal us. And they are the people in the next comfy recliner in the infusion suite.
When, after a couple of weeks, I realized the gracious gentleman across the room was Phil “The Privateer’s Pal” Ferrell, I asked if he and his wife, Deb, would tell how they’re fighting his cancer together. They agreed.
You may not recognize Ferrell by name, but you know him by his deeds. He retired as a fire marshal with the Tacoma Fire Department. We can thank him for buildings shut down before they burned down. We can be grateful for his skill in finding the causes of blazes, and for the data he gathered to reduce the risk of future fires.
And it’s Ferrell who made possible some of Tacoma’s best pirate fights. As captains sailed from Canada to Tacoma for Tall Ships in 2005, they realized they had a black powder crisis: They didn’t have any, and could not figure out how to get it. Without it, the Lady Washington and Privateer Lynx could not sail in, cannons firing at the shore, or stage their nightly sea fights.
It was Ferrell who, when he heard of the problem, solved it, and, 11 years ago, contributed to one of Tacoma’s finest Fourth of July extravaganzas.
With that brief introduction, here is the Ferrells’ story.
My name is Phil Ferrell, I’m 62 and I have Multiple Myeloma. Multiple Myeloma is a malignant blood cancer that destroys bones, causes kidney failure and severely impacts the immune system.
I served on the Tacoma Fire Department for 31 years. I started like everyone else as a firefighter, and after a few years I applied and went to paramedic school. Paramedics have a dual role as a firefighter and paramedic. After 13 years in this role, I became a fire officer and then later moved into Fire Prevention as a Fire Inspector. I was then promoted to Deputy Fire Marshal until my retirement. During my time in this job I met Kathleen Merryman, who at that time was with the Tacoma News Tribune. She followed up on several issues I was involved with and we became friends. Now we frequently share our time with chemo cocktails on Wednesday afternoons at MultiCare enjoying all the bobbing solar toys on the window sill.
Shortly before retiring I scheduled a routine physical, with all the blood work. My doctor called and wanted to talk to me about the results. I thought if it was the usual issues he would have told me on the phone. Worry sets in. My wife Deb and I went to the appointment a few days later. He had a hard time looking me in the eye, shuffled his feet a bit and said I had a monoclonal protein marker in my blood and it looked like an oma.
What does that mean?
He continued to say I had an M Spike and other markers for Myeloma.
I was not familiar with this disease at that time; unfortunately, I know only too well what that is now. He wanted me to see a hematologist for a second opinion. We were stunned, to say the least.
I was able to see an oncologist/hematologist within a couple of days. The exam was the usual stuff, blood work and everything else. He also saw these Myeloma markers and wanted to do a bone marrow biopsy while I was there. A bone marrow biopsy means they penetrate the top area of your hip, the thickest part, with a needle and extract bone marrow. Wow, does that hurt! It felt like he was driving a nail in my hip.
At one point he said, “You need to relax,” as he was grinding the needle into the hip. I said, “Really, want to trade places?”
The biopsy was sent to Seattle for extensive tests.
I will never forget the first time I crossed the sky bridge on the 4th floor at MultiCare and seeing “REGIONAL CANCER CENTER” and how that felt: sickening, scared and disbelief.
At the next meeting with the oncology doctor he reviewed the results. He had all the results on the TV screen and explained them. When he got to the markers he told me I had “smoldering myeloma,” and there is no cure. What an irony that a fireman gets a disease with “smoldering” as the name!
Smoldering myeloma is the pre-cancerous stage of Multiple Myeloma that will progress to what is known as active disease. I began to educate myself about the disease process, treatment and survivability.
There is another language in this cancer world. I learned all about the Bence Jones proteins, the meaning of IGG, Beta 2, Free Lambda, Heavy and Light Chain numbers and a litany of other terms. At times I would just have to quit reading because it was just overwhelming to realize I had this and what the consequences are.
It took me a while to be able to say “I have cancer” without choking on it. I would say it looking in the mirror to see myself saying and believing it.
Fortunately, I did not have many issues people have when diagnosed and would not have known I had the disease if not for the physical. This was the start of over three years getting blood work checked every three months, an annual bone scan, MRI and CT to check for progression or damage. In December, 2013, I started to have excruciating pain in my right arm. After an MRI the reviewing doctor called that night and told me that the C-7 vertebrae, the last cervical vertebrae at the base of the neck, had been completely destroyed from Myeloma, and the pressure on my spinal cord was the cause of the arm pain. We were devastated to hear this, knowing the disease was not “smoldering’” any longer, but had become active and was attacking bone. He scheduled me to see a neurosurgeon the next day.
This doctor told me I was in danger of being paralyzed from the neck down.
I had emergency surgery to remove what was left of C-7, install a titanium cage with bone graft and install a plate for support.
I belong to St. John Bosco Parish in Lakewood and before the surgery a very extensive prayer group was initiated for me. I also had the Sacrament for the sick. I want people to know the power of prayer. During the day of the surgery, check in procedures, waiting a few hours for the delayed surgery, something I normally would not have the patience for, I had the most overwhelming sense of peace. I have never experienced anything like this peace and found it very comforting. I am certain the Holy Spirit was carrying me through this ordeal. When they came to get me for surgery, my daughter asked if I was nervous and I said, not at all. Firefighters are a big family. I had let the news out through the union about my condition and I was overwhelmed at the outpouring of calls, e-mails, cards and offers for help of any kind from so many current and retired firefighters. It was, to say the least, very humbling.
I recovered well from the neck surgery having to wear a horse collar neck brace for two months. Ugh!! There were long days and nights wearing that thing. Since the disease was now active I was started on the chemo regimen once a week. Fortunately, I don’t have too many adverse side effects. I am now in what is called the “induction phase.”
This means I am getting chemo to drive down the myeloma cancer cells and get me ready for a stem cell transplant later this summer. This is my only hope for the remission of this disease. This will all be done at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. This is a complex process and I won’t go into detail. If you want more info you can go to this link for all you could want to know about Multiple Myeloma: http://www.seattlecca.org/diseases/multiple-myeloma-overview.cfm.
As I stated before, this disease severely impacts the immune system. At the beginning of April I got a fever of 101.5. The doctors’ instructions are to call and be seen at an emergency room if you get a temperature of 100.5 or more. My wife was insistent I call and go in. Well, as an old paramedic, I’m thinking I am not going to spend five hours in the ER and have them tell me to drink liquids and rest. Already doing that! The temp kept going up to 102 over a couple of days. When I went in for my regular chemo day on Wednesday, I was so weak and dizzy I had to be wheeled into the hospital. My blood pressure was 74/40. My doctor saw me and said, “Take him to the ER, he is in septic shock.” NOT GOOD. The infection had a three-day head start. After spending several hours and getting a battery of drugs and liquids, they admitted me to the ICU. I spent three days there getting treated for the septic shock.
When I saw my oncology doctor the next Wednesday, he told me after the ER doctor admitted me he had called him and said he did not know if I would make it. Whoa! I will listen to my wife from now on.
Statistically, this disease affects three to four people per 100,000. There are approximately 15,000 firefighters in Washington State. It is disconcerting that in this state alone in the last few years there have been five firefighters, including me, who have been stricken with this disease. Three of them have since died. The disease is becoming much more prevalent in the fire service due to the toxic environment encountered during and after firefighting operations.
RCW51.32.185: http://apps.leg.wa.gov/RCW/default.aspx?cite=51.32.185 provides for the Presumption of Occupational Diseases for Firefighters and it was determined that my disease was a result of firefighting. Multiple Myeloma is one on the cancers that is included in this law. This disease is extremely expensive to treat and all my treatment will be covered. Additionally, if I should die from this disease, it is considered a Line of Duty Death, which has a benefit for my wife.
There were days in the beginning when our emotions ran rampant and you wanted to run around like your hair is on fire! My wife and I have accepted and dealt with the fact I have this disease. We fully understand the disease, treatment and potential outcomes. I know God has a plan and my job is not to interfere with that plan. I have no control over this disease and trust the doctors will do everything they can to get me to remission. I am not going to waste my days wringing my hands or hiding in a dark room because of this. I have a lot of living left to do!
I will say I would rather be running into a burning building or charging down a ships’ ladder into an engine room fire than to have this disease. I don’t have that option.
I want to express my heartfelt thanks for all the MultiCare Oncology staff! YOU ROCK! Thanks for your professionalism, care and concern. It makes a difference, trust me.
If you should want to support continuing research for a cure, you can go the International Myeloma Foundations at: http://myeloma.org/Main.action, or the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation at: http://www.themmrf.org/about-the-mmrf/powerful-news/
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Thank you – Kathleen Merryman