I first met Jim Reilly in person a few months ago when, together with Team ThyroidChange, I took part in a thyroid cancer fundraiser and he came to say hello because he recognized me from my Facebook photo. This morning his name was mentioned to me again by another thyroid patient who had seen the excellent article written by “Crazy Thyroid Lady” Carol Gray, and ThyroidChange felt it would be interesting to follow up this article with an interview.
September 11, 2001 (colloquially known as 9/11) was a momentous and heart-wrenching moment in US history and Jim Reilly was there. An ex-firefighter, Jim instinctively wanted to save lives, whether on or off duty. The day the two passenger planes crashed into the Twin Towers, Reilly rushed to the scene of destruction despite being off duty. Whilst he helped many others, this day tragically resulted in him having to give up his job and passion because of a diagnosis with thyroid cancer, which spread to his lymph nodes and necessitated removal of part of his neck, resulting in extensive nerve damage. Jim has generously agreed to an interview with me so that I can share more of his story with you here.
Sarah: Thank you for agreeing to talk to me today, Jim. When did you first realize after 9/11 that something wasn’t quite right with your health? What symptoms tipped you off?
Jim: I had no signs that I had thyroid cancer. In February of 2011, I was snow-blowing my neighbor’s driveway (she happens to be a doctor) and I had a bad cold. My wife asked her to listen to my lungs because she thought I might have bronchitis. She listened to my lungs and said they were clear. She then felt my neck and felt a swollen lymph node. She said it could be from me getting sick, but wanted me to make an appointment with an ENT. I made an appointment and the doctor at first didn’t think it was anything much. He sent me for an ultrasound of the lymph node and still didn’t expect anything wrong. My next test was a Fine Needle Aspiration of the swollen node. The test was done and a week later I had an appointment for the results. My wife was off that day and came with me (thank God!). We went into the room and I could see the doctor was a little nervous. He came out and said the results were papillary carcinoma. I said, “Okay what is that?” My wife then said, “Cancer of your thyroid”. At that moment I began to sweat and couldn’t hear another word he said.
Sarah: You mention that following 9/11 both your partner and several co-workers were diagnosed with various cancers, and that you’ve been to over 50 funerals, where the deaths were mostly due to cancer. What do you feel caused such a high incidence of cancer and other health issues after 9/11? Do you believe it was due to the noxious smoke and debris?
Jim: Well, first of all, being a fireman is not the healthiest job in the world. Every day we are exposed to so much, both internally and externally. It could be from a car fire to someone who burnt their food in their apartment. Firemen prior to 911 always had a much greater chance of getting cancer than the general public. I believe the probability was 15 percent greater. Now, after 911, the number of New York City firefighters diagnosed with cancer in the 12 years since the attacks is 4 percent higher than the 12 previous years before 911. When I arrived down at the World Trade Center on September 11 2001, I got there about 1 pm. They were not letting anyone into the site because they feared more buildings would come down. After 7 World Trade Center fell, I think at about 5 pm or so, we all went to work looking for survivors. I had no mask – just my firefighting coat, helmet and pants. We helped a few people who survived the collapse, but sad to say not many. I remember breathing in the smoke and dust and kept drinking water to clear my throat. Being a fireman, we all did what we had to and I know each and every one of us would do it again. I do believe my exposure to the rescue and recovery effort caused my thyroid cancer. There is no doubt. My partner was also diagnosed with thyroid cancer and had his thyroid removed in 2004.
Sarah: The Zadroga Act was passed in 2006 to expand health benefits to workers on the scene of 9/11 who suffered health issues as a result. Have you received support from this? Have you found the state to be supportive with the costs of your thyroid cancer treatment? What, if anything, do you wish they had done differently? Do you have access to a good thyroid doctor?
Jim: I was certified for the Zadroga bill in May of this year. They took over the payments for my treatment from here on out. My personal insurance paid until then. I think it is good that they are owning up and taking care of business. I have had no problems with my treatments since. I am currently receiving all my treatment at Sloan Kettering and have not had a problem there.
Sarah: On the flipside, why do you think organizations such as the New York Health department and individuals such as oncologist Dr. Alfred I. Neugut seek to refute the correlation between the debris and fumes on the site of 9/11 and the resulting higher incidence of respiratory illnesses and cancers, etc? How does this make you feel?
Jim: There are a million studies out there. The Fire Department of New York City doctors have seen a huge increase in respiratory problems. We were breathing all this ash, dust, smoke and who know what else. You know the city is going to refute it because they don’t want to admit they were wrong – think of all the lawsuits it would have.
Sarah: People around the world admire the selfless bravery of you and your colleagues on the “day the world stopped turning”. This event has given rise to movies and songs and the acts of you and your colleagues are regarded as the stuff of legends. Do you feel that the events are accurately portrayed in most of these media and, if not, how do you wish they were portrayed differently? What would you like people to know that remains unsaid?
Jim: As you all know, there are people out there who love all the attention that comes with being a fireman and there are others who don’t say much except that we just did our job. I was broke into the fire service in the Bronx by some pretty experienced guys and they always told me no one needs to know what we do. I have kept up on that tradition. I went to work each day and really never brought work home. It was not till after I retired that my family found out some of the crazy stuff I saw and did as a fireman.
What people don’t know is that to this day the FDNY is still in a rebuilding phase and it will take years to get back to where they were. I think there are about 5,000 active firemen and officers on the job who worked 911, so every day there is something to remind them of that terrible day.
Sarah: What you and those present on 9/11 went through was horrific, but do you feel there was anything positive you learned or experienced from this as a result? Do you have a take-home message to give to our readers?
Jim: The only thing positive that has shown over and over for the history of The FDNY is the Brotherhood. I have said it many times, “There is no job where if you need a mountain moved it wouldn’t be done in one day with the help of the brothers”
When I had my surgery and was in Sloan for five days, my firehouse where I was assigned as a lieutenant cooked dinner and lunch for my family while they were visiting me at the hospital every day. When I got home, for the next three weeks the firehouse where I was a fireman for 17 years cooked dinner for me and my family for three weeks. They took care of my yard work and anything else that needed to be done … there are not many jobs where that happens.
Sarah: Thank you very much for your time, Jim. Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
Jim: I will end this with 2 quotes from Edward Croker who was Chief of FDNY from 1899 – 1913. They are so true.
“Firemen are going to get killed. When they join the department they face that fact. When a man becomes a fireman his greatest act of bravery has been accomplished. What he does after that is all in the line of work. They were not thinking of getting killed when they went where death lurked. They went there to put the fire out, and got killed. Firefighters do not regard themselves as heroes because they do what the business requires.”
“I have no ambition in this world but one, and that is to be a fireman. The position may, in the eyes of some, appear to be a lowly one; but we who know the work which the fireman has to do believe that his is a noble calling. Our proudest moment is to save lives. Under the impulse of such thoughts, the nobility of the occupation thrills us and stimulates us to deeds of daring, even of supreme sacrifice.”