1. The 9/11 Cancer Story

    [written May, 2007]

    On April 2, 2005, one day after his 34th birthday, Reggie Hilaire became a father. It was a boy, Jeremy Sebastian Hilaire, and Reggie was infatuated with every bit of the 6 lb. 10 oz. baby. In the months leading up to the birth, Reggie at times doubted whether he was ready for fatherhood. But immediately after Jeremy’s arrival, Reggie felt like a king. The luckiest man alive. The delivery had gone well, his wife Sela was healthy and so was the couple’s child. Everything was good.  

    And then, a month and a day after Jeremy was born, Reggie woke up with flu-like symptoms: He was dizzy and had been suffering from night sweats the previous week. Normally, he would have shrugged it off and attempted to battle through the illness. This time, Reggie recognized that his son was still very young and susceptible to easy infection so he went to see his longtime primary physician in Great Neck, Long Island. As Reggie was about to exit the family’s Briarwood, Queens apartment, Sela called out to her husband with a reminder: “Remember, tell the doctor about your lump.”  

    The lump was an approximately two-by-one-inch ball on the front-left side of Reggie’s neck. Sela had noticed it when the couple was in bed one night a few months before Jeremy was born. Reggie thought it was “cool” and sometimes even played with it. But Sela kept urging her husband to get it checked out. Now he had no excuse. 

    Reggie almost didn’t remember, but as he was pulling his shirt back on after a physical examination at the doctor’s office, his wife’s words sprang to the front of his mind. 

    “His back is to me, he’s adding notes to his computer and I’m like, ‘Oh, doc, I have this lump on my neck,” Reggie recalled during an October interview. “He’s like boom and turns around.” 

    The doctor knew Reggie was a police officer who had worked at Ground Zero and the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island in the months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. 

    “What were you exposed to at Ground Zero and Staten Island?” the doctor asked.  

    Reggie wasn’t sure of the answer. A CT scan and two biopsies later, he was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer. Doctors told him chances for full recovery were excellent. He didn’t have a chance to think otherwise. On June 13, 2005, he underwent a five-hour surgery to have his thyroid gland removed. Two months later he underwent radiation treatment to eradicate any remaining malignant cells and in September of that year he started taking thyroid replacement medication, which will become a lifelong routine. Still, cancer seemed to be behind him.  

    In December of that same year, Reggie returned to his physician’s office for a routine checkup. He informed the doctor that he was still having trouble with another, more intimate, medical condition that had plagued him for years: when Reggie defecated, he bled—a lot. He had previously been diagnosed with hemorrhoids and anemia but his doctor wasn’t sure he should be bleeding as much as he was. He referred him to a hematologist who told Reggie he wanted to perform a bone marrow biopsy and aspiration immediately. With Reggie flat on his stomach and numbed up, the hematologist worked a needle deep into his hip. A week later, the Hilaires returned for the results.  

    “Sela saw the signs right away,” Reggie said. “We go to the examination room instead of his office. They draw blood. Sela says, ‘that was strange, something’s up.’” 

    Something was up. The pathologist who inspected the bone marrow sample had determined that Reggie was suffering from multiple myeloma, a plasma cell blood cancer that is treatable but incurable. In cancer-free bodies, plasma cells make up less than five percent of cells in the bone marrow. In most multiple myeloma cases, however, this percentage soars well over 10 percent. Reggie’s first test revealed a plasma cell percentage between 15 and 20. But the hematologist wasn’t convinced that that was the correct diagnosis. He said Reggie was too young for such a disease and that his urine and blood didn’t show the presence of monoclonal proteins, which myeloma cells often produce. He told Reggie not to worry and to come back for another biopsy in February of 2006.  

    “The doctor starts saying multiple myeloma and plasma cells,” Sela said, “and I didn’t even look at Reggie because I just felt his soul drop.” 

    Reggie was nervous but thought and hoped the diagnosis might have been a mistake. His second biopsy returned with similar results, but the hematologist still wasn’t confident that he had the disease. Reggie wasn’t satisfied with that response and decided to seek a second opinion. In March, he met with doctors at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. They gave him the diagnosis he was fearful of but ready to hear: asymptomatic multiple myeloma. There was no mistake—there was indeed a second cancer and Reggie couldn’t help but contemplate the question his doctor had first posed. 

                “What were you exposed to at Ground Zero and Staten Island?” 

    ***

    Five and a half years after the Sept. 11 attacks, officials and experts across various sectors are publicly voicing concern about the possibility of a heightened risk of cancer among World Trade Center rescue and recovery workers. Medical studies have found beyond a reasonable doubt that thousands of these people suffered permanent lung damage from their work at Ground Zero, but the cancer question is now percolating. In January, the White House agreed to give $25 million to 9/11-related monitoring and treatment programs affiliated with Mount Sinai Medical Center and the New York Fire Department. Last year, the groups received $75 million, but money was running out. 

    David Worby, a partner of Worby, Groner, Edelman, Napoli & Bern, has been perhaps the most vocal attorney for 9/11 workers. His firm is representing more than 9,000 workers, including Reggie, in a lawsuit against the City of New York that claims unsafe working conditions in the months following the terrorist attacks. Worby has said in published reports that more than 100 rescue and recovery workers have developed blood cancers, like multiple myeloma, with at least 11 having died from the diseases. Dr. Robin Herbert, co-director of the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring program at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, said in a December interview that she knows officially of only one person who has been diagnosed with two cancers: Reggie Hilaire.  

    Reggie was born in Crown Heights in 1971 to Haitian immigrant parents. In 1975, the family relocated to a Queens Village house where Reggie lived with his family until 2003. In a crowded room, he’s more likely to observe a conversation than interject in one—a personality trait his 39-year-old brother Gary said can be traced to his childhood.  

    “I was like the bad boy and he was the good boy,” Gary said. “I had a lot of friends and he was kind of shy, more reserved.” 

    So it is somewhat surprising that Reggie said he’d always wanted to be a cop, a position that often involves a healthy amount of conflict resolution. But it was the one thing he could see himself doing, “not necessarily to be the hero, but to go out and help people.”  In 1992, he got his chance after scoring well on the department’s entry exam. Reggie hadn’t yet earned his degree from the John Jay College for Criminal Justice, though, so he concluded it wasn’t the right time to join the force. He spent the next eight years doing mostly data entry work before he decided to try out for the force again. On Sept. 29, 2000, Reggie Hilaire became a New York Police Department police officer. He was thrilled. After eight months of training in the police academy, Reggie was assigned in June 2001 to Police Service Area 5 on East 123rd Street in Manhattan. His job was to patrol the public housing developments of East Harlem. 

    On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Reggie was asleep in the Queens Village home he shared with his parents. Being a rookie, he worked the 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift in East Harlem. Around 10:45 a.m., his mother roused him from his sleep to talk to then-girlfriend Sela who was on the phone. Sela learned of the terrorist attacks as they happened from workers at a school where she was working for the day. But she let Reggie get some additional rest because she anticipated him working long hours in the coming days.  

    “I’m thinking ‘Keep his ass at home,’” Sela said. 

    Eventually Sela decided she had to tell her future husband about the day’s events. She had no good option for getting home to Jamaica, Queens from the school in Brooklyn so Reggie told her he would pick her up and drop her off at home. After that, in the late afternoon, Reggie reported to Floyd Bennett Field on Brooklyn’s southeastern tip, where officers from Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens were asked to convene. All the traffic on the Belt Parkway was fleeing east, except for Reggie. Around 7 p.m., Reggie and fellow officers filed onto buses to be transported to their appropriate locations. As the bus climbed over the Brooklyn Bridge, the sun was setting to the west. Reggie remembered thinking that despite the tragedy, it was a beautiful night. Then the bus made a stop at police headquarters in Downtown Manhattan. There was complete blackness. 

    Reggie was instructed to report to regular duty at PSA 5 that day and for the next month. On the afternoon of Oct. 18, 2001, he received his first assignment for recovery work at the previously closed Fresh Kills landfill, which was reopened when the city needed a place to deposit all the debris from the destroyed Twin Towers. Reggie arrived at the entrance to the landfill around 7 p.m. that evening for the first of many 12-hour shifts there. He and other rookie officers once again loaded onto a bus that began to ascend a steep hill. The next image was unforgettable. 

    “Gradually you are seeing debris all around,” Reggie said. “It was just, wow, you couldn’t believe it. Mountains and mountains, at least a story high.” 

    Reggie and his colleagues were fitted with white Tyvek protective suits, thick yellow rubber boots, gloves and respirators. During breaks, the officers undressed in tents where they discarded the suits into garbage bags and hosed down their boots. They were instructed to look out for certain items. Human remains were to be placed in a bucket and carried to a cordoned off medical zone. That was the preeminent task. Firearms and money were to be put aside as well. That first night, an officer near Reggie found what appeared to be a football-sized rock covered in dirt. He placed it in a bucket, handed it to Reggie and his partner, Yolanda Peralta, and told them to walk it over to the medical center. Reggie didn’t understand why this rock was receiving such special treatment. Then, upon closer inspection, he realized it wasn’t a rock at all. It was a human foot.  

    Reggie returned to Fresh Kills three more times during October, finding more employee identification cards than anything else. On Nov. 19, 2001 he was assigned for the first time to the World Trade Center. Since he was a relatively inexperienced officer, his function was strictly one of security; no one without a special pass was permitted to get close to the site. His shift began at 6 a.m., a block or two south of Ground Zero. After a few hours, Reggie’s head began to throb with, as he put it, “the worst headache of my life.” The debris at the site was still smoldering and would continue to burn until Dec. 19. A strong metallic smell filled the air. A woman he didn’t know passed by and told him he should be wearing a respirator. He was dressed in normal police attire and didn’t know where to find a respirator even if he wanted to. The headache only got worse. At 6 p.m., it was time to go home. Reggie was thankful. 

    Reggie worked a total of 732 hours at the Staten Island landfill and 150 more at the World Trade Center from that first October day until his last day at Fresh Kills on July 25, 2002. Albert O’Leary, communications director for the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said 441 officers have filed disability applications related to 9/11 work as of March 2.                                                                      

    At first Reggie was assigned to the work, but soon he began to volunteer for it whenever he got the chance. Few officers followed his lead. Initially, it was a self-described selfish way of getting away from a hard ass supervisor at PSA 5. Soon, though, the work grew on him and he viewed it as a way to become part of a bigger mission. There were times, most notably during his first days at Fresh Kills and Ground Zero, when he wondered if his health was in jeopardy. In the end, he trusted that the city and police department wouldn’t put him at risk.

    “At the time, I thought if it was that dangerous, they would shut it down,” he said of his work at both sides, “that it must be alright or they wouldn’t have all these people here—which is logical. Looking back now, though, it’s stupid.”

    ***

    On Nov. 20, 2006, a group of lawyers, law students and public citizens convened in a second-floor meeting room at 14 Vesey St. in Manhattan, from which the flood-lit abyss that lay in the wake of the Twin Towers is clearly visible. The forum, sponsored by The New York County Lawyers’ Association’s Labor Relations and Employment Law Committee, was billed as an open discussion on 9/11-related illnesses and the legal aftermath. Among the panelists were Mark Solomon, senior law judge of the New York State Workers’ Compensation Board, Marc Jay Bern, another partner of the law firm Worby, Groner, Edelman, Napoli & Bern, and Herbert of Mount Sinai Medical Center.       

    Toward the back of the oak-paneled room, Reggie found himself a seat on the aisle. He had been to many similar events during the previous year and a half and wasn’t confident that he would learn anything new. Still, there was a chance that cancer might be discussed. With him, he carried the same black backpack he takes to nearly every interview, forum, or rally related to 9/11 illnesses. In it, he lugs three encyclopedia-thick plastic folders. One contains all his medical records concerning his thyroid cancer; another with information on his multiple myeloma; and a third that consists of a collection of pamphlets and published articles on 9/11-related diseases. You never know when you might need to refer to one of them, he said.  

    The first panelist to speak was Herbert. She spoke at length about the recently published study entitled “The World Trade Center Disaster and the Health of Workers: 5-Year Assessment,” of which she was the author. The findings of the study were indeed staggering: 69 percent of the more than 9,000 responders examined between July 2002 and April 2004 “reported new or worsened respiratory symptoms while performing WTC work,” the study reads. Reggie already knew these statistics so he seemed rather unmoved. He was especially apathetic because the 31-page report only mentioned the word cancer once as a disease that should be monitored in the future. But during the question and answer portion of the program, a bearded man in a suit rose to his feet and addressed Herbert: he asked if she had seen cancers and what types of cancers they were. Reggie leaned forward in his chair. Herbert paused, looking flustered. She started to answer and then paused again.  

    “I’m not comfortable talking about this” because of pending litigation, she said finally.  

    Reggie shook his head. Why could she go on in detail about respiratory illnesses but not cancers when there are lawsuits involving both? he asked himself later. It was, in his view at the time, “a political sidestep.” Herbert, however, explained in a December interview that the forum’s moderator had suggested avoiding talk of cancer since research into a possible link is in its early stages while “in the case of respiratory disease, the scientific evidence is so compelling.” She also later told Reggie during a meeting with him and his wife that she knew that the man who asked the questions was a city lawyer and she feared that her comments might be brought up in court in the future. Still, no matter the reason for her response, the message was clear: talk of cancer among 9/11 rescue and recovery workers is a touchy issue.  

    ***

    In recent months, the legal battle has gained momentum while Mayor Michael Bloomberg has publicly attempted to halt it. The mayor proposed in a February news conference that the $1 billion currently being held in the World Trade Center Captive Insurance Company be transferred into a reopened Victims Compensation Fund for those who’ve become ill since the original fund closed in December 2003. Currently, the $1 billion is set aside to pay damages in the event that the city is found liable in any of the thousands of cases it faces. Bloomberg said that if Congress chooses to reactivate the fund, and the $1 billion is successfully moved, plaintiffs like Reggie could receive money without proving the city’s negligence. Lawyers representing the workers, though, have said that $1 billion may not even be enough to settle all the claims. Either way, Reggie isn’t expecting a windfall. 

    “It’s going to be a drop in the bucket,” he said. “But it’ll be good to get the recognition.” 

    From a medical perspective, it’s going to be tough to prove. The medical monitoring crew at Mount Sinai has already faced a difficult task in compiling accurate cancer statistics. As of December 2006, almost 19,000 workers had been examined, but each person is only eligible to be examined every year and a half. If a person is diagnosed sometime between examinations and does not notify a member of Herbert’s staff, there is no reasonable way for that information to be gathered. Then there are those people who are terminally ill and the hardest to track. 

    “One of my biggest worries is that the people who are sickest, that somebody who is very sick who’s getting chemotherapy, or maybe getting a bone marrow transplant, those are the people that may be least likely to come in for monitoring exams,” Herbert said. “So I am very concerned that any numbers we release are going to have to be interpreted with great caution.” 

    Herbert said her goal is to release at least some cancer data related to 9/11 work this year. Although it’s not clear if the findings will support the assumption that rescue, recovery and cleanup workers have a heightened risk of cancer, some things are certain, she said. First, each of them potentially had exposure to cancer-causing agents such as benzene, asbestos and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, some of which are highly carcinogenic. Second, they potentially were exposed to a mixture of these agents. Lastly, chronic inflammation of the lungs, which has already shown up in many cases, is in itself a risk factor for cancer. 

    Where Reggie’s case fits in is not exactly clear. He wasn’t a first responder but said that the area was still smoky when he first arrived. Remember that headache? he said. But then again he did most of his work at Fresh Kills in protective gear. But what if the protective gear wasn’t protective enough? What if his respirator was defective? 

    ***

    Someday Reggie could die from multiple myeloma. Doctors have told him that there’s a 50-50 chance his current cancer could progress to full-blown multiple myeloma in two to three years. When that happens, his bones will begin to deteriorate and the presence of harmful proteins in the body could lead to kidney damage or kidney failure. He could end up in a wheelchair at an early age. It’s something he has tried hard not to think about. Instead, he’s focused much of his attention over the last year on finding a clinical trial he could enter. His current treatment consists of a monthly two-hour intravenous dose of a drug called pamidronate, which is believed to prevent bone deterioration caused by multiple myeloma (For one week after his first dosage, Reggie’s entire body ached so much that he could barely walk. Now, the day after treatment he is often fatigued and nauseous). Pamidronate is far from a cure, though, so Reggie has inquired about three trials. Doctors with all three programs informed him that he wasn’t eligible because his disease isn’t far enough along. 

    On a crisp day in mid-December, Reggie helped Sela and Jeremy into the family’s Toyota Camry for the short drive to his in-laws apartment nearby. After dropping them off, he made the half-an-hour trip that has become a regular part of life over the past two years: east on the Grand Central and Northern State parkways until the grayness of the city gives way to the opulent green yards of Great Neck, Long Island. On Great Neck Road stands the Great Neck Medical Group where Hilaire’s primary doctor and thyroid specialist hold their offices. It was busy on this weekday with only a few free seats in the expansive L-shaped waiting room. Most of the other patients were nearly twice Reggie’s age.  

    Reggie said he’s grown accustomed to spending most of the day at the Great Neck office when he’s unable to get an early morning appointment. The wait gets longer and longer as the day moves forward. His appointments for this day were at 12:15 and 12:45. His thyroid specialist, Dr. Barry Schuval, finally saw him at 2 p.m. In the interim, Reggie used the time to display just how much he’s learned about his cancers. He started with talk about the Thyroid-Stimulating Hormone or THS and how his doctor wants to keep that number low. He sounded a bit like a doctor himself. He also talked about his new routine: thyroid replacement pill in the morning, cholesterol medication at night.  

    When Reggie finally saw Schuval, he told him that he’d been unusually tired recently. The doctor told him it’s tough to pinpoint the cause but assured him that everything with his thyroid seemed fine. He suggested Reggie get a chest X-ray when he had the chance just to make sure the thyroid cancer cells hadn’t relocated there. Reggie’s face crinkled with nervousness so the doctor reminded him that his suggestion was just a precautionary step—nothing more. Midway through the consultation, Schuval stepped out of the room to take a phone call. As soon as the door closed, Reggie hopped off the exam table to inspect test results on a computer screen in front of him.  

    “This is what I do,” he said.  

    After going through the experience when the hematologist didn’t trust the pathologist’s diagnoses of multiple myeloma, Reggie doesn’t put all his trust in anyone. When he saw his primary physician, Evan Schwarzwald, a few minutes later, the doctor gave him news that he was expecting but dreading: Reggie’s blood pressure was 150 over 90 and Schwarzwald had decided to prescribe medication to try to lower the pressure. Reggie said that is what he feared. Schwarzwald also told him he needed to lose 20 pounds.  

    Reggie is about 5-foot-8 and 210 pounds but, up until his marriage, twice-a-day workouts produced a sculpted physique that made him look taller. Then he met Sela and the workouts gradually fizzled. The couple would get ready for the gym and then decide to go out to eat instead; they were comfortable with each other and with their bodies. The additional responsibilities of fatherhood coupled with his illnesses only augmented the decline in fitness for Reggie. Now, visible signs of muscle mass are hard to see.   

    Schwarzwald informed Reggie that the average weight for his height is around 155 pounds.  

    “I’d look like a crackhead,” Reggie said. 

    Schwarzwald told him again that he needed to drop the weight and Reggie kept quiet. There was no use arguing. After the visit, Reggie stopped for lunch at a diner across from St. John’s University.  

    “I should get a salad,” he said.  

    Instead, he ordered a bacon cheeseburger with a side of fries. It was as if Reggie wanted to convince himself that he was in control of a body that was continuously betraying him. In the past year, in addition to the cancer, Reggie also underwent a painful procedure to correct his hemorrhoid problem and surgery to reduce the pain and numbing in his right hand as a result of carpal tunnel syndrome. Now, his left hand is causing discomfort as well and his most recent examination with the WTC monitoring program revealed a fatty liver.  

    “My life is doctor appointments and babysitting,” he said as he parked his car in front of his apartment building later that night. “Except I guess it’s not babysitting when it’s your own child.”  

    ***

    David Savitz isn’t sure that rescue and recovery workers like Reggie will ever know with much certainty whether their work following 9/11 is to blame for their cancer, but he’s determined to get as close to the answer as possible. Savitz holds a doctorate in epidemiology and is the director for the Center of Excellence in Epidemiology, Biostatistics, and Disease Prevention at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Recently, he’s taken on an additional role as an adviser with the 9/11 medical monitoring program there, focusing specifically on cancer data. He said he has two main functions in the new position: to make best use of the data already accumulated and to design what he described as “a more thorough definitive study of cancer occurrence” among the World Trade Center workers. It’s not going to be easy.  

    The first step on the most basic level is to try to answer a question: would the workers have developed the cancer had they not been exposed to toxins and carcinogens like they were? To answer that, researchers must compile cancer percentages among the workers and compare those to cancer statistics in general. What the outcome will be, though, no one is quite sure. If the data shows on one hand that there is no increased risk, or on the other hand, that there was a dramatic increase, people like Reggie will get perhaps the closest possible thing to some sort of closure. There is, however, another potential outcome that could result in even more debate.  

    “If there is something in between, it is going to be hard to be terribly definitive or precise about that,” Savitz said. “I wouldn’t want to guarantee that it’ll give a clear verdict.”  

    Up until recently, many medical professionals have said that it is just too early to be seeing cancer cases related to 9/11 exposure. And Savitz agreed that is true when talking about many cancers, especially those that affect solid tissues, such as breast cancer. But then there are groups of cancers, most notably diseases of the blood, which have much shorter incubation periods. Savitz pointed to the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, who were diagnosed in great numbers with leukemia just a couple of years after the attacks. Leukemia, just like multiple myeloma, is a blood cancer. That’s why it’s imperative not just to look at percentages when analyzing the data, but also the type and rarity of the cancers in question. For example, there are only 50,000 people living with multiple myeloma in the United States and 99 percent of them are 40 years old or older, according to the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation. That’s an eye-catching statistic when considering the case of Reggie, who is 36.  But it’s still not indisputable proof. 

     For one, Herbert said researchers have to look at the possibility that maybe 9/11 exposures weren’t the sole causes of the disease. It’s possible, and in some cases likely, according to Herbert, that some of the rescue, recovery and cleanup workers who have been diagnosed with cancer had previous exposures to cancer-causing agents in their professional duties. And that’s nearly impossible to uncover. Still, Savitz is committed to getting as close to an answer in cancer cases as possible.  

    “For a person suffering from cancer,” he said, “it’s not very satisfying to say, ‘well, we don’t know.’”  

    ***

    Reggie was anything but satisfied last winter. He calls it the “dark times.” He was admittedly obsessed with two things then: finding out as much as possible about multiple myeloma and trying to discover just how he came to acquire not one, but two cancers before his 35th birthday. January of last year was perhaps the worst month of his life. It was after his first bone marrow biopsy, which showed an abnormal level of plasma cells, but before his meeting with doctors at Sloan-Kettering who gave him the definitive diagnosis. His laptop became his new best friend. At first, Sela tried to coax her husband to bed as the clock ticked past midnight while he continued to research the new disease or monitor “cop sites” for talk of 9/11 illnesses. But after a few weeks, she stopped trying and Reggie kept typing until 2 or 3 in the morning. He was depressed. His wife was depressed. And their marriage was faltering.  

    “It just kept on building and building and just not knowing was worse enough and then we always have had a great relationship and I felt like his wife is the computer now so I didn’t have someone to talk to about things,” Sela said. “I just felt lost and I was like, Jesus Christ our lives are done for. If he feels it’s done for, it’s done for. And I kept fighting with him, like ‘Look, you have to be here with us too. You’re OK. And Jeremy needs you, he can’t be in an environment when there’s just no hope.’”  

    For a few months, Reggie didn’t think the couple was going to make it. Things got a little better in the spring when he learned his diagnosis and began seeing a psychiatrist. It was a way to vent and a chance to get away from the negativity in the home. By the beginning of the fall, Sela agreed to join her husband at biweekly therapy sessions. The couple began to understand each other’s point of view. Reggie started to realize he needed to pay more attention to his family’s needs, especially his wife’s. Obsessing over his condition was helping no one.  

    Sela, for her part, learned to stop harping on secondary issues that weren’t absolutely pressing. Her goal had always been to own her own home with her own piece of land; no one in her family ever had that. But when she looked at the couple’s savings, the numbers were stagnant. Now, buying a home isn’t a priority but it is still a goal, she said. Reggie said he still wants to make that dream reality. He went back to work for a few months after his thyroid surgery but before his myeloma diagnosis. He was relegated to desk duty, but it was still work. He felt useful. He’s thinking about going back to desk duty again soon, while he still can. Any hope of getting a promotion, though, has been lost. Hilaire said he won’t take the sergeant’s exam because his memory is not what it used to be. As unintentional proof of his memory loss, he often repeated the same information several times in interviews with a reporter over the past few months.  

    “This is another thing that is aggravating and I’m not blaming him,” Sela said, “but his memory is off somewhere else.”  

    The couple celebrated its four-year wedding anniversary in September and as Christmas drew near, Sela didn’t hide the fact that she desperately needed a vacation. “I’ll go by myself if I have to,” she told her husband. Reggie wanted a vacation, too, so he surprised her with a four-night stay at an all-inclusive resort in Aruba. Before the couple left, Sela said there were three things she was most looking forward to.  

    “Having time with Reggie, being under the sun and sleeping,” she said. 

    Reggie said he just wanted to get away.  

    The trip was everything they expected. They even purchased a timeshare while they were there. But when they returned home, problems arose again. A simple disagreement turned into a weeklong fight that manifested itself in silence.  

    “It feels like the ‘dark times’ are coming again,” Reggie said in February. 

     For him, there’s no escape from this life in sight. When he and Sela are arguing, there’s no one really there to talk to; Reggie said he doesn’t confide much in his parents or his brother because they don’t like to talk about his illnesses.  So, for now, Reggie is just trying to deal.  With a life-threatening disease at a young age. With a marriage that is drifting off track. And, perhaps most of all, with the question: why?

     “It’s been 21 months of straight (crap),” he said in February. “I’m just at this breaking point.”

    ————————

    [UPDATE: It has been seven and a half years since I wrote this article for my master’s project at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. I’m happy to report that Reggie’s thyroid cancer is still in remission and that the multiple myeloma has not progressed past Stage 1. He is back working at PSA 5 in Spanish Harlem.

    He and his wife, Sela, welcomed their second child in 2012. Her name is Eva.]

Jason Del Rey

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