New budget would recognize cancer-related deaths of firefighters as ‘line of duty deaths’

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LEXINGTON, N.C. — Jason and Maryanna Richardson met in high school, but didn’t date until after he went away to learn to be a firefighter.

“We dated for five years before we got married, and May 3 this year, we were married 19 years,” Maryanna recalled.

She would worry, because of the dangers of the job; mainly fire and smoke.

“The fact that he saved lives and fought fires and wasn’t scared was pretty awesome,” she said.

However, it wasn’t either of those which claimed his life. About six years ago, the couple learned that Jason had stage four colon cancer. Ahead, they had what was — at the time — the hardest task of their lives; telling their three sons.

“Jason started the conversation with, ‘So boys, I have cancer and I’m gonna fight it,’” Maryanna said.

Jason went through years of treatments, doctor’s visits and appointments. But late last year and into early this year, it became apparent he was losing the battle.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is our wedding anniversary and here I am bringing him this oxygen tank,’” Maryanna said.

He continued to fight, until he said his last words, “I love you,” on June 7, in their living room.

“The boys, his brother, his parents and I were with him right there, on his last breath,” Maryanna said.

Meanwhile, North Carolina lawmakers were putting the final touches on their new budget. In it, for the first time, they categorized some forms of cancer causing firefighters to die as line of duty deaths.

It reads, “For the purposes of this Article, when a firefighter dies as a direct and proximate result of any of the following cancers that are occupationally related to firefighting, that firefighter is presumed to have been killed in the line of duty: Mesothelioma, Testicular Cancer, Intestinal Cancer.”

The Winston-Salem Professional Firefighters Association says studies have shown that firefighters are 50 percent more likely to get cancer than the average citizen. While Jason was 45 at the time of his death, they say some firefighters have been getting cancer as early as their 20s. They added that some current firefighters have been treated for cancer and returned to the job.

They also added that a retired Winston-Salem battalion chief also lost his battle to cancer in recent weeks.

The budget was presented to Governor McCrory on July 1. If signed, the above legislation would go into effect on October 1, applying to deaths occurring on or after that date.

Although the Richardson’s would not benefit from it, and Jason’s colon cancer would not have been encompassed, it is Maryanna’s hope that sharing his story will prompt further legislation in the future; adding more benefits and applying to more forms of cancer.

“At one point I had so many bills on the kitchen table I was like, ‘I don’t know. We’ll all just figure it out,’” Maryanna said. “You’re one step away from bankruptcy when you have a health crisis, and so most definitely, it would be very helpful.”

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