John Narkin, a Philadelphia Fire Department battalion chief, loves his wife, Rebecca, more than anything.
On Valentine’s Day, he’s giving her the biggest gift of all by fighting to secure her future after he’s gone. Sadly, that day might come sooner rather than later, because, for the last four years, Narkin has been in the fight of his life against a rare cancer that he is convinced he contracted as a firefighter. The city disagrees. When he applied for benefits under the Firefighters Cancer Presumption Act, his request was denied in less than a week by the city’s Office of Risk Management.
Narkin is determined to see that his wife of 28 years gets everything she’s entitled to from the city. So on Monday — Valentine’s Day — he will testify at 1 p.m. during a virtual hearing before a City Council subcommittee on health and public welfare about the need for his cancer to be classified as job-related, which will allow his spouse to receive the maximum benefits possible after he dies.
“Enough is enough. The mayor can fix this tomorrow,” said Mike Bresnan, president of Philadelphia Firefighters’ & Paramedics’ Union Local 22. “It’s mind-boggling that the son of a Philadelphia fire chief allows this kind of treatment of our members. I can’t get over it.”
I’m rooting for Narkin, whom I have written about before. I won’t stop until Philly finally does right by him. What cancer is doing to him is bad enough. The city shouldn’t also kick him while he’s down.
Firefighting is hazardous. Carcinogens such as asbestos, arsenic, benzene, chromium, diesel fumes, carbon monoxide, dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls, and a host of other toxins are common at fires. 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, which ensures a significantly higher payout to a surviving spouse.
But when Narkin, a hazardous materials technician, notified the city about his 2018 myoepithelial carcinoma diagnosis, city officials promptly rejected his claim. Since then, he has endured every type of cancer treatment imaginable. Even so, his prognosis isn’t good. He should be enjoying what time he has left — not worrying about what happens to his family after he’s gone.
“He wants peace of mind that his wife is going to be taken care of,” said Councilmember David Oh, who organized Monday’s hearing. “Pennsylvania — although it has a Cancer Presumption Act — has not been very good with the spirit of the law. And Philadelphia, in particular, seems to have taken a particularly hard stand, maybe harder than can be reasonably explained.”
In addition to Narkin, his attorney, Michael Dryden, and five other local firefighters are also scheduled to testify.
“The Fire Department over the last several years has been taking steps to protect firefighters from carcinogens more. You can’t protect them from all of the carcinogens, but they’re doing better,” Dryden pointed out. “All of those changes are to benefit firefighters going forward. But it seems like the city forgets that people like John Narkin served the city before those changes were made.”
What’s at stake is considerable.
Upon his retirement, Narkin is eligible to receive an annual pension of about $66,771, along with five years of medical coverage. His wife will get a widow’s pension of $33,386 following his death and also be entitled to medical care for the remainder of the time that Narkin was eligible.
However, if he is successful in getting the city to agree his illness is job-related, Rebecca will be entitled to considerably more — a widow’s 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 he will be promoted to deputy chief posthumously.
“I’m furious. The state says that he’s entitled to this, and the fact that we’ve been fighting for three years is infuriating,” said Rebecca Narkin. “It’s posted in every firehouse in the city that they are guaranteed these benefits. It’s very frustrating.”
She noticed the lump on Narkin’s back that led to his diagnosis in 2018. Since then, he’s lost 40 pounds from his 6-foot-4 frame and now suffers from neuropathy among other serious side effects from the cancer and treatments.
“We know there is no cure. The doctors have already told us that,” said Rebecca, who is in Florida caring for her mother. “We’ve been through immuno[therapy]. We’ve had five rounds of radiation. We’ve had a frozen section of the ribs. He’s had three surgeries. He’s had chemo. He’s had chemo pills. He’s had forms of treatment ever since this cancer was discovered.”
The last thing that the City of Philadelphia should be doing is adding to this poor man’s burden. When it’s his turn to speak Monday, Narkin will talk about his 27 years of public service and how important it is that his wife is cared for appropriately after he’s gone. It will be from his heart.
It’s what you do for someone you love.