This One Is Personal

 

 
 
 

A.J. Heightman, MPA, EMT-P, Editor-in-Chief, JEMS | | Tuesday, September 30, 2008


When my sons were very young, I took them trick or treating on Halloween. For them, it was a special night full of costumes and candy. One Halloween, I decided to start them out in the neighborhood behind our house. As we walked out of our backyard and onto the adjoining cul-de-sac, we heard spooky music coming from a house to our right. My sons and I walked cautiously up the front path, waiting for ghosts or goblins to jump out at us from behind the bushes or porch furniture. Nothing popped out as we had anticipated. However, as we approached the front porch, a low, monotone voice spoke out from up on the roof of the house.

"Welcome," said the voice. As I prepared to give myself a precordial thump to re-sync my startled heart (and simultaneously try to stop my kids from screaming), I recognized the "monster" on the roof was the teenage boy who lived there -- Ryan McCormick. He had gone way over the top on his performance. As I would find out later, this matched his enthusiasm for every project he was involved with throughout his life.

The next time I saw Ryan was when he completed EMT class and joined my department, the Bethlehem Township (Pa.) Volunteer Fire Department. Ryan was a natural for EMS -- bright, polite, enthusiastic and, eager to learn and be mentored. He showed up at everything we scheduled: training, fundraisers, Day at the Park for the kids of the community. Most importantly, he was always on time for his volunteer shifts, impeccably dressed and eager to inventory "his" ambulance before the first call. He always impressed me.

I lost track of Ryan when I moved to California in 1995 to work for JEMS, but I heard from others he was aggressively pursuing EMS as a degree and career. I also heard he was doing extremely well. Later, I learned Ryan graduated from Springfield College in 1997 with a degree in emergency services management. While in college, he founded the Springfield College Emergency Response Team to provide EMS to the campus, a service that continues to operate today.

Upon graduation, Ryan returned to Bethlehem Township and soon became assistant captain, the position I held for many years. I was proud -- but not surprised -- his peers recognized his leadership capabilities at such an early age, and I knew he wouldn't stop there.

Ryan went on to serve as a paramedic in Nazareth, Pa.; East Stroudsburg, Pa.; Mountainside Hospital in Montclair, N.J.; St. Joseph's Hospital in N.J. and University Hospital in Newark, N.J.

Ryan joined the U.S. Army Reserves in 1998 and quickly advanced to the position of weapons of mass destruction/chemical warfare specialist. He was working as a paramedic in Newark on Sept. 11, 2001, and was a first responder at the World Trade Center and Ground Zero.

After 9/11, Ryan was promoted to assistant director of the Center for BioDefense at University Hospital, where he met his future wife, Jessica. He moved to Verona, N.J., was soon elected assistant captain of the Verona Volunteer Ambulance squad and married Jessica, the love of his life, on May 21, 2005.

He was soon hired by St. Barnabas Healthcare System as their director of emergency management and pursued his master's degree at Kean University and then Penn State University.

In October 2006, Littleton (Colo.) Fire Dept. EMS Chief Wayne Zygowicz and I were speaking at the New Jersey First Aid Council's annual conference when I recognized a very familiar face walking toward me. It was Ryan. I was happy to see him. I was also startled, but in a different way than I was 15 years when he greeted me from his rooftop. Ryan didn't have any hair, and he was very pale. I was almost afraid to ask, but I didn't have to, because the first words out of his mouth were, "Yep, Hodgkin's Lymphoma. Courtesy 9/11."

I was floored, and so was Wayne, as we stood there with Ryan. But, true to form, Ryan took charge of the situation, sat us down and told us how he spent days in the thick of the rescue efforts and debris at the World Trade Center site. He also detailed what he was doing to battle his horrible disease, never losing his ever-present smile.

He could see I was sad and uncomfortable with his illness and his candor in speaking about it. He said, "C'mon A.J. If you were in town, you know you would've been right there next to me."

He was right. Any one of us would have been glad to be Ryan's partner on the pile in New York. Many were, and they too, are sick or have died because of the terrible things they inhaled in the air.

Ryan's illness surfaced in 2002 and wreaked havoc on his body for six long years. But he was a fighter and didn't stop contributing to EMS while battling his cancer. He and his wife founded NJ Heroes, a non-profit organization that supports two major projects:

  • The NJ Heroes Blood and Tissue Donors Notification Network alerts potential donors when a fellow emergency responder or their family is in need of blood or related items, and
  • TurtlePods,a joint program with the Northern New Jersey Delta-Zeta Alumnae Chapter, provides the gift of music to cancer patients in the form of free iPods to help them cope with the hectic and lengthy treatment regiment that occurs during their battle with the deadly disease.

Ryan posted a YouTube clipthat details not only the TurtlePods iPod giveaway but also his experience as a cancer sufferer. His video clip is as professional and well developed as every other project he became involved in. I was as proud of him in that clip as I was of all his other accomplishments. It forced me to smile -- even though I didn't want to because there again was that smiling and determined face outlining not only this important program but also his illness and experiences with his cancer.

On Friday, Sept. 26, Ryan McCormick answered his "last call", surrounded by his immediate family, just as he had wished. He was just 34 years old, another victim of 9/11 who lived as full of life as he could, dedicated and committed to EMS and his fellow man.




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