Firefighter Laurianna Sargent, 52, was diagnosed with breast cancer in January of this year. She’s facing it with the help and support of friends, family, and her coworkers within the Albuquerque, New Mexico, fire department—but due to a legislative loophole, she’s not getting the worker’s compensation that she and her colleagues fought to receive in exactly this kind of situation.
Sargent’s commitment to firefighting spans decades.Read More
“In college,” she says, “my drive was toward something that involved helping people, being physically fit, and constantly learning. I also wanted something that required teamwork.”
She put herself through a fire academy in Pasadena, California, and earned her first firefighting position there. Her career then took her to Illinois and North Carolina before leading her back to her hometown of Albuquerque. She was hired by her current department in 2008.
“I even ended up at the station in the neighborhood I grew up in,” she says. “Talk about full circle.”
In January of this year, Sargent went for her annual gynecology exam. She had not noticed a lump, but her doctor did.
“She immediately sent me for blood work and a diagnostic mammogram,” Sargent recalls. “After a biopsy, I was diagnosed, on January 24.”
She had a lumpectomy the following month, returning to work in a desk-support capacity the week after her surgery.
“I found out last Friday that I will be going through chemo for 20 weeks, starting in March,” she says. “Radiation will follow that.”
In 2016, New Mexico passed the Presumptive Cause Bill, developed to cover its firefighters with worker’s compensation in the event of illnesses linked to their work. Sargent and her colleagues lobbied for its passage.
“I think the big push from our union was due to the number of people in our department that have had cancer in the last eight years—11 firefighters,” she says. “One memo from our chief in 2013 was an update on five firefighters who were fighting cancer at the time. Five!”
However, the law has stipulations.
Since its passage, “three of us have not been covered, because of age, type of cancer, or time with this department—a state requirement,” Sargent reports. “For example, one firefighter had colon cancer and was with us for nine years, but the requirement was 10 years—even though he had 10 prior years working for [nearby] Kirtland Air Force base and served as a firefighter in the Air Force.”
Sargent’s own diagnosis also falls through the cracks.
“Shortly after my diagnosis,” she says, “I went to talk to my union president, and we looked at the law and saw the stipulation of being diagnosed before age 40. I am the first person to be diagnosed with breast cancer since this law was established, so it wasn’t an issue prior to now.”
Since Sargent will have a desk position while she’s in treatment, she’ll be able to continue working.
However, she notes, “any time off that I have to take will be my own comp, vacation, or sick leave that I have accrued.”
To help Sargent with expenses, a friend launched a GoFundMe campaign.
This friend “happens to be the first female deputy chief in our department,” Sargent says. “She was at the first diagnostic-ultrasound appointment, when I was told it was most likely cancer. The support from all of our administrative staff, from the fire chief on down, has been incredible.”
All funds raised will, of course, help with the significant cancer bills that roll in.
“After meeting with the financial counselor at my cancer center,” Sargent recalls, “I realized that if I did not have this extra help, it would take me quite a while to pay off the expense of this treatment.”
Though New Mexico’s Presumptive Cause Bill is not covering her, Sargent is glad the legislation exists.
“The trend in fire service is toward putting measures in place to prevent exposures,” she says. “When I first got into the fire service in the 90s, we took our turnout pants into our bunkroom and placed them next to our bed, so we could get into them quickly. And this was with gear that was not washed—it was a badge of honor to have dirty, soot-covered gear. Now this is not allowed in any living area in the station. We are evolving to catch up with these things. My hope is that we can move forward with changing the law, too, so that others in the future won’t have the worry of financial burden. It’s hard enough being a firefighter—to face cancer and financial stress, too, can be overwhelming.”
As for her own situation, “I was lucky,” she says. “This was caught fairly early, and what I have is very responsive to chemo and treatable. I look at what my brothers in my department have, and are currently dealing with, and it really puts my journey in perspective.”