It frustrates me how often life in Philly is unnecessarily difficult.
The Pennsylvania Firefighter Cancer Presumption law clearly states that after a firefighter is diagnosed with cancer, it’s presumed to have been caused by job-related exposure. Narkin works as a hazardous materials technician, and over the years has been exposed to all kinds of dangerous chemicals.
But when the 25-year veteran notified the city about his myoepithelial carcinoma diagnosis, his claim was rejected so fast that it left his head spinning. He felt discarded and furious.
Narkin hadn’t been asking for anything he didn’t rightly deserve. He just needed an official acknowledgment that his cancer was job-related so that after he dies, his widow will have additional benefits.
But instead of city officials lining up to make sure that this terminally ill, career public servant had everything he needed to live out his final days free from worry about his family’s finances, they said his cancer wasn’t work-related. That left him in the position of having to prove he got cancer in the line of duty. How was he supposed to have done that?
After the hearing, several readers reached out asking what they could do, and I told some of them that they should write the mayor. Author Tim McGrath, whose latest biography is called James Monroe: A Life, took me up on the suggestion and wrote a moving letter to Mayor Jim Kenney, saying in part, “You wear your love for Philadelphia in your expressions, none more so than last month after that tragic fire on January 5. The sorrow you felt was etched in your face ... sometimes, a firefighter needs that kind of mayor.”
I don’t know what all happened behind the scenes, but on Good Friday (of all days), Narkin got word that his denial had been overturned and that his cancer would be recognized as job-related.
As a result, Narkin’s wife will be entitled to considerably more upon his death than she otherwise would have — a pension of $84,180 per year and lifetime medical benefits. Also, the cost of Narkin’s funeral — up to $15,000 — will be covered. And Narkin will be promoted to deputy chief posthumously. Officials signed a memorandum of understanding spelling out Narkin’s benefits last week.
“It’s fantastic news. It was the right thing to be done,” Oh told me.
It is fantastic news for Narkin, who is still employed with the Fire Department, and hopefully also for other firefighters who become ill in the future after being exposed to carcinogens on the job.
“We’re at a point now where the city’s going to look at these things more than just throwing a fight up right at the beginning,” said Mike Dryden, Narkin’s lawyer. “But we’ll see. Every case is kind of different when it’s cancer.”
City spokesman Kevin Lessard said in a statement, “Generally, there are multiple reasons for resolving claims, such as the uncertainty of the result of litigation, the length of the appeal process, the cost of litigation, mitigating the City’s liability, and the heavy weight on the participants engaged in years of litigation, to name a few. All of these factors came into play in the parties’ decision to settle this case.”
Still, that’s no excuse for the case dragging on like it did.
“It was a hard fight. It shouldn’t have been a fight but it opens the door,” Chuck McQuilkin, vice president of the Philadelphia Fire Fighters and Paramedics Union Local 22, told me. Unfortunately, Narkin’s fight will help other firefighters in the future, he added — because as firefighters, it’s not a matter of if they will contract a job-related disease, but when.
“It’s something that they don’t tell you at the academy when you raise your hand to take the job,” McQuilkin added.
“Firefighters with illnesses are subject to strenuous legal challenges from the City when they seek compensation,” Oh said in a statement. “Although this battle has been won, my thoughts and prayers are with [Narkin] as he continues to battle this disease.”
Narkin still works full time, albeit often remotely, and has no intention of retiring anytime soon. He’s not letting the neuropathy he developed from his cancer treatments stop him, or the fact that he has difficulty sleeping because of his ailment.
I’m happy to report that his health is currently stable. Narkin is grateful for that, and for the fact that he no longer has to fight to get the benefits he rightfully deserves. He hopes that the next firefighter who contracts a job-related cancer won’t have to fight as long and as hard for the city to recognize it.
In other words, it shouldn’t be so difficult.