By Jessica Mulvihill Moran, ,
Published October 28, 2015
Thirteen years after working tirelessly on the rescue and recovery efforts in the days and weeks that followed the September 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center, 54-year-old firefighter Jimmy Martinez, is in need of a hero of his own.
“I knew that there was potential for great harm, but I just didn’t think it would come in the form of cancer as multiple myeloma years later,” Martinez told FoxNews.com. “So now I’m no longer fighting fires, I’m basically fighting for my life, hoping for a donor.”
Martinez, a veteran of the Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) with close to 25 years on the job, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of the blood cancer in June 2013 – a result, he said, of exposure to toxins at Ground Zero.
“It was devastating … the rug was being pulled from under me. I was otherwise healthy, always took care of my body … and now it was something that was beyond my control,” Martinez said. “It affected me knowing that I had my whole life planned out ahead of me with my family and grandchildren, and I possibly wouldn’t be there now.”
In multiple myeloma, a group of plasma cells becomes cancerous and multiplies, eventually overwhelming the production of healthy cells, according to the Mayo Clinic. The disease causes symptoms that can affect your bones, immune system, kidneys and red blood cell count.
Shortly after his diagnosis, Martinez filed a claim under the James L. Zadroga 9/11 Health & Compensation Act which established the World Trade Center Health Program after it was signed into law in 2011 by President Obama. The program ensures that those with verified 9/11-related health problems receive treatment and monitoring through at least 2015. The FDNY expedited Martinez’s claim because he needed to start aggressive treatment, and within a days of finding out he had cancer, he was a registered member of the benefit fund which continues to cover his medical bills.
“[The WTC Health Program] is the saving grace of all this,” he said. “I thank God at least we have that because it’s one less thing to worry about.”
Martinez underwent more than five rounds of intensive chemotherapy, at times, receiving infusions for 24-hour periods in the hospital.
When his cancer failed to respond to standard treatments, doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City decided to try a stem cell transplant. In December, they harvested stem cells from Martinez’s own body and injected them into his bone marrow.
“I finally had a response where I’m in partial remission,” Martinez said. “So basically, I’m stable right now, but my doctor at Sloan told me that although there isn’t a cure for multiple myeloma, my best hopes for some type of longevity is finding a matching [bone marrow] donor, and that has become very difficult.”
Finding a match
Martinez is one of the 20,000 Americans who turn to bone marrow transplants each year when they have exhausted all other options for treatment. But his case has unique challenges.
“It has to do with being Hispanic,” he said. “The Hispanic population is very poorly represented in the bone marrow registry and the chances of Hispanics finding a donor are greatly reduced.”
Of the 11 million donors listed on the national bone marrow donor registry, only 10 percent are of Hispanic/Latino decent, according to Delete Blood Cancer | DKMS, a non-profit organization that registers potential donors.
“There are not enough Latino donors on the registry or – African Americans for that matter,” Caroline Melendez, transplant/collection center manager at Delete Blood Cancer told FoxNews.com. “In terms of minorities, it is really lacking.”
Because donor matches are determined by tissue type – an inherited trait – patients are more likely to find a match in a donor of their same ethnic background. While it would stand to reason that family members may be the best chance at a match, surprisingly, that’s not the case for 70 percent of potential transplant recipients.
There are 7,000 known tissue type characteristics that can be present in millions of combinations in the human body. In order to be a match, a donor must have at least eight characteristics in common with their potential recipient – and finding out is as easy as a swab of the cheek.
“If you are generally healthy and between the ages of 18 and 55, you can go to our website and we’ll send you a free kit,” Melendez said. “We work with anyone and everyone and we make it as easy as possible to register.”
Melendez said the donation process is much simpler than people usually think. There are two ways to donate depending on your patient match’s specific needs.
“About 75 percent of the time, donors undergo peripheral blood stem cell donation,” she said. “Blood is taken from one arm and put through a machine that processes the stem cells and then given back to the donor.”
The other 25 percent of donors undergo a procedure to extract bone marrow from the back of the pelvic bone under general anesthesia. It takes about 1 to 2 hours and is done on an outpatient basis, Melendez added.
From the ashes, a cancer epidemic
Since that fateful September day in 2001, more than 2,500 rescue and recovery workers have been diagnosed with cancers at a rate 20 percent higher than the general population.
“I remember back around that time, everyone saying that ‘You’re gonna see the effects of this years down the road – and that time that we were talking about then – it’s now,” Martinez said. “We lost 343 men that day in the fire department alone, but that one act, to this day, is still taking lives.”
For years, federal officials denied the possibility of a link between exposure to toxins at Ground Zero and cancer in first responders and those who lived in the area at the time.
Scientists worried about exposure to asbestos, a known carcinogen that coated the lower columns of the towers, as well as benzene found in the jet fuel that ignited the raging fires as they burned.
It wasn’t until 2011 that first responders got the scientific evidence they needed to back their claims of the 9/11-cancer link. A study published in The Lancet found that firefighters who had been exposed to environmental conditions at Ground Zero had a 19 percent increased risk of developing cancer when compared to those who were not exposed.
“In my firehouse alone, over the last few years, including myself, there’ve been five men diagnosed with cancer; two with multiple myeloma, one with leukemia, one lymphoma and one with lung cancer,” Martinez said. “So if you multiply that by all the firehouses throughout [New York City], I think you start to get a picture of what we’re dealing with here.”
In 2012, federal health officials did all but publicly acknowledge the link when they added 58 types of cancer to the list of conditions eligible for coverage under the World Trade Center health program.
As recently as September 4, the FDNY added the names of 13 members who died from illnesses directly related to their work at Ground Zero to a memorial wall at the department’s headquarters, which already bears the names of 89 members lost before them.
Now it seems, some lawmakers are taking note. On Thursday, Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) gave his support to extending the Zadroga Act, which is set to expire in 2015.
“Although more than a decade has passed since 9/11, the brave men and women who risked their lives to report for duty at Ground Zero on that fateful morning, as well as the weeks and months that followed, are still experiencing adverse health effects,” Pallone said in a statement. “I am proud to announce my intention to co-sponsor reauthorization legislation so that vital health care services and deserved compensation can be provided to our heroes who chose to run toward the fire and smoke that day, not away from it. Now, in their time of need, we must not run away from them. This critical program should be extended without delay.”
Always a hero
Even in his current situation, Martinez has no regrets. In fact, when asked if he would do it all over again knowing the consequences he would face down the road, he said he absolutely would.
And like a true hero, as he fights for his own life, Martinez has not stopped trying to save the lives of others. He credits the outpouring of support from his family, friends and FDNY brothers with adding 1,000 names to the donor registry through bone marrow drives they’ve held in the hopes of finding his match.
“We’ve been notified that we had three potential matches to other people out there [on the transplant list],” Martinez’s son, Jimmy Jr., a FDNY firefighter told FoxNews.com. “And that really touches close to home, and it kind of gives us more of a drive to continue this.”
For Martinez, who has been on medical leave from the job he loves as he battles cancer, knowing that their efforts could help find someone else’s life-saving match eases the waiting game.
“I think along the line, I will eventually get … that special person for me -- but in the meantime, I think we’re saving other lives. Someone is getting that phone call that I’m still waiting for, and that’s what keeps me going,” he said. “I think at the end of the day, the good Lord is going to take care of me.”
Jimmy Martinez Jr. will take his efforts on the road to the Charlotte Firefighters’ 9-11 Memorial Stair Climb, an event that remembers those who died, on September 13 in Charlotte, N.C.
Find out if you’re Jimmy Martinez’s match at the Lieutenant John Martinson Memorial Picnic at Hillside Swim Club Staten Island on September 20.
FoxNews.com's Alexandria Hein contributed to this report.