By Janet Conner-Knox, The Wilson Daily Times, N.C.
Dec. 24 — Michael Sumner still loves his work as a firefighter. But these days the fire captain fights more than fires.
Sumner, 37, has been battling a rare genetic form of cancer called metastatic (medullary) thyroid cancer for more than a year now. Sumner said doctors told him he would probably never return to firefighting after surgery and for a while he had to stay out of work.
“They told me, right to start with, they were going to have to cut some muscle,” Sumner explained. “They didn’t know if I would be able to wear the mask and the helmet ever again.”
But he is back to work at Wilson Fire and Rescue Services fighting fires and cancer at the same time.
Sumner said fire services is the only work he has ever wanted to do. Holidays, birthdays, good weather and bad, Sumner can be found waiting on the call.
At the moment he works at District 3, on U.S. 301 near Black Creek Road.
“It’s a calling,” Sumner said. “Don’t ask me why, but it is. This job is not for everybody.” Sumner said he got the calling as a teen. He became a firefighter at age 19.
Doctors have told him that he will always have MTC and they cannot tell him how long he will live, Sumner said.
But it is his faith that keeps him going and grateful each day, he said.
Sumner is a tall, thin man who doesn’t know a stranger. And he loves talking about his little girl, Sara-Grayson, 11, his wife, Lisabeth, and his firefighting family. His eyes light up when talking about firefighting.
Sumner said no day is the same and you never know who you will be called to serve. He said regardless of economic status or religion or whatever the label society puts on a person, firefighters come to a scene with one thing in mind — saving lives and helping whoever is at the scene.
“We went to Gillette Park for a lady who had flat lined — I mean she was graveyard dead,” Sumner said. “We hooked up our equipment to her. We got the shock on her and started CPR, and she had a pulse before we put her in the ambulance.”
A month or two later, that same woman came by the fire station to see the people who helped save her life. Sumner said it was great to see her.
“That’s the reward,” Sumner said smiling. “When you can see them walk in the door — they don’t have to say thank you. Nobody has to tell us anything. It’s just being able to see that we made a difference.
Sumner said he wasn’t feeling like himself but would not go to the doctor to see what the problem was. He never guessed he would have a severe health battle to fight. “I was shaving and I found this little knot,” Sumner explained. “I didn’t think much of it. I thought it was a cyst. I don’t go to the doctor. I didn’t even have a doctor at that time.”
Sumner said the fire department makes sure they get an annual physical, and that was his doctor’s appointment for the year.
“But then it got to the point where I would come home or from my side job and I would be just gassed,” Sumner said. “I do physical training all of the time, but I was too tired. I would just be more tired than I had ever been. My wife stayed on me and I went to the doctor.”
It was May 2012, when he noticed the cyst, and it took until September of the same year when he found out what was happening to him. He had to have an operation. The scars from surgery are across the front of his neck.
Sumner said his family and the fire fighting family everywhere he has gone have been a tremendous support.
When he had to see a doctor in Baltimore, it was a firefighter in the area who invited him to stay at his house.
“He didn’t know me,” Sumner said. “One of the guys here called him up. Just like that he invited me to stay at his house, fed me and treated me like a family member.”
Just before Thanksgiving, Sumner got another taste of the brotherhood that exists between firefighters on his trip to Disney World. The Reedy Creek Fire Department that takes care of the four parks at Disney had a big surprise for Sumner.
His father-in-law, Bucky Robbins, said he was taking the whole family to Disney for vacation. Sumner didn’t know that Terri, his wife’s stepmother, had called the fire department at Disney before they got there.
“I thought it would be a regular trip — see Mickey, go on rides, eat a lot of food,” Sumner said. “When we got to our rooms, they said ‘y’all been upgraded.’ I just figured it was some promotion or something. A room is a room and as long as I had a place to sleep I was fine.”
But when he and his family got to the room, there were lots of gifts from the Reedy Creek Fire Department.
“That crowd had sweatshirts, T-shirts — I mean there was at least four or five of each for me, Lisabeth and Sara-Grayson — all over the room,” Sumner said. “And they had a letter. The letter was from the assistant chief and it let me know what day to be in the front of the hotel at 10 a.m.”
He said he called the assistant chief to thank him when the chief told him they would take him and family members to all of the fire stations. His brother-in-law is a volunteer firefighter, so he told the assistant chief they would be ready.
Sumner said all he expected was they would pick him up in a little command truck and carry him around to the other fire stations.
“That crowd pulled up with the engine, and the ladder, and the battalion,” Sumner said. “Well then, here comes all these Disney folks. They took that engine out of service. Two guys got off the engine — they got in the lighter truck — me and Miller got in the engine, and they carried us to the main fire station.”
Sumner said there was a big crowd there waiting for them and they bought pizza and sweet tea. He said you can’t get sweet tea at Disney, but they made sure he had sweet tea for his visit.
“They carried us up in the ladder trucks where we could see all of Disney,” Sumner said.
Sumner got to see all four fire stations and behind the scenes at Disney, too.
“You know that behind the scene is as big as what the people see out front,” Sumner said. “It is another example of the brotherhood with firefighters.”
Sumner said he is taking his medicine and works out as his doctor tells him to do to keep up his physical strength. He has no intention of giving up his fight. He reads his Bible to keep up his spiritual strength.
Sumner reads a book, “Strength for Service to God and Country,” every day. Recently, he was reading a story in the book called “Building the Good Life” and
the scripture attached to the story is Matthew 10:39: “He that findeth his life,
shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake, shall find it.”
Either way his life goes, Sumner said he can accept.
“If I live I get to be with my family and if I die I won’t feel pain,” Sumner said. “As long as the good Lord gives me the physical ability to ride the fire truck, that’s where I will be.”
(c)2013 The Wilson Daily Times (Wilson, N.C.)
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