Firefighter’s duty takes its toll, 33 years later

By John M. Guilfoil
Globe Staff / May 30, 2011

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On Feb. 2, 1978, Pittsfield firefighter Thomas J. Lange responded to a medical emergency and found a patient in respiratory distress. He performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the man. When they arrived at Berkshire Medical Center, a hospital worker told Mr. Lange that his patient had hepatitis C.

Mr. Lange contracted the disease as a result of his professional actions. Even with regular medical treatment and monitoring, all he could do was wait for the sickness to manifest itself.

In 1998, as fatigue set in and his iron levels dropped, family members said Mr. Lange began to show symptoms of the disease. In February 2010, as it progressed despite many treatments, some experimental, he was diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer. Mr. Lange died on May 22, 33 years after assisting the patient. He was 60.

“My father was as good a father as I could ever ask for. He was there every step of the way for my brother and my mother, and he was the ultimate family man. That’s what he lived his life for,’’ said his son, Todd M., 33, of Walpole.

In Pittsfield, family and former co-workers shared fond memories of Mr. Lange. Though he was sick for years and could have stopped working when the disease surfaced, Mr. Lange did not retire from the Pittsfield Fire Department until June 2006, according to the department.

“He loved his job. He said he was lucky that every single day, when he woke up, he wanted to go to work,’’ Todd Lange said. “He was proud of what he did, though he would never tell you he was proud of himself.’’

Mr. Lange’s wife, Pamela, and parents Alcide and Anne live in Pittsfield. Another son, Patrick, lives in Dedham.

Mr. Lange’s case has become a tragic yet rare reminder of the dangers emergency responders face. Statistics on the number of firefighter deaths resulting from on-the-job exposure to disease are conflicting.

The Quincy-based National Fire Protection Association said only three other firefighters nationally have died as a direct result of on-duty exposure to bloodborne disease since the late 1970s, when it started keeping track. However, Mark A. Whitney, of the US Fire Administration, said nine firefighters, including Mr. Lange, have died from bloodborne diseases, and three of them have been from Massachusetts.

Mr. Lange, who spent the latter years of his career in the Fire Department’s inspection division, where he was a mentor, remained a “true jake,’’ his co-workers said.

“I worked with him since the beginning of my career. He was a fantastic firefighter, a great person, somebody that would watch your back and you watch his,’’ said Joseph Carcheti, 58, who has been on the department for 30 years and worked on Engine 6 and later as an inspector with Mr. Lange. Carcheti knew Mr. Lange since they attended rival high schools as teenagers. They were addicted to Coca-Cola and Hood Sports Bar ice cream treats and shared many memories.

What struck Carcheti was that Mr. Lange never complained about his lot in life, though he spent more than half of it under the thumb of hepatitis, knowing it would probably kill him eventually.

“That’s the crazy thing,’’ Carcheti said, adding that he would have been angry. “But not him. Maybe he got a little more religious, but that’s it.’’

Mr. Lange went to work every day, though he was quietly often tired, weak, and reeling from the side effects of clinical trial drugs.

“He never complained,’’ Todd Lange said. “You would never know he had hepatitis unless you knew him really close. He never crutched it. He never felt sorry for himself, and he never said, ‘Oh, why me? Why me?’ A lot of people would. I might.’’

The other three firefighters who the National Fire Protection Association say have died from bloodborne illness contracted their diseases from infected-needle pricks, said Kenneth Willette, a former fire chief in Concord and Wilbraham and now a manager at the association.

In the 1970s and ’80s, firefighters were most concerned with obvious hazards, such as smoke inhalation and falling, flaming timbers at house fires. And they were just beginning to worry about their alarming rate of heart disease.

But when it came to medical calls, firefighters did not even wear gloves when handling patients in that era.

“Back then, we were never worried about things like that,’’ said Pittsfield Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski. “It was common for us to handle patients with bare hands, no respiratory protection. Blood splashes and things like that were common for us. In the last 20 to 25 years, we’ve changed that attitude.’’

In fact, it was not until late 1991 that labor in general began to catch on to the risk of contracting disease on the job. During that period, which coincides with the height of the HIV/AIDS scare, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration published its Bloodborne Pathogens Standard, which mandated that employers provide equipment such as gloves, gowns, and masks to employees who might come in contact with bodily fluids.

“We really started training on that. The standards became embedded into our operational procedures, to keep bodily fluids isolated from the first responder and ensure the use of protective equipment when firefighters respond,’’ said Stephen D. Coan, the state fire marshal.

The International Association of Firefighters, the national fire union, advocates recognition of firefighter illness. Many states do not have presumptive disability laws, which assume that heart disease, cancer, and certain infectious diseases contracted by firefighters are job-related injuries unless proven otherwise. Massachusetts has a presumptive law for heart and lung disease and certain cancers, but not for infectious disease.

Though his death came after he retired, Mr. Lange is considered to have died in the line of duty. His death was reported by the US Fire Administration, listing the 1978 case.

A departmental funeral was held last Monday, with firefighters from across the region attending. More than 800 people attended the wake the weekend before.

John M. Guilfoil can be reached at

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