I am Barry Bridges. Our family has been directly touched by colon cancer twice – first my wife Londa in 2006 at age 48, then our son Brent in 2014 at age 28.
Our cancer journey began on Spring Break in 2006. Londa had a pain in her side for the second time in as many months. We took a time-out on remodeling our kitchen and called the doctor for a quick appointment. We were sent immediately to the hospital. In the whirlwind of the next four days, we received a diagnosis, had surgery to remove part of her colon, and were on the path to recovery. To those at the oncologist office, Londa was a model patient. She arrived well-put-together, took her treatments with grace, and demonstrated strength by continuing to work at her school administrative office job, only taking two days off every other week for treatments. The doctor continually shook her head at one so young having colon cancer. Six months of chemotherapy and five years of routine exams and Londa was for all intents and purposes cured.
In the Fall of 2014, our son Brent was entering his fifth year as a firefighter. He was the picture of strength, in great physical condition, a leader of his peers, and respected in the community for his service. He had met and was engaged to his dream girl, a schoolteacher. Together, they were planning a wedding for the following summer.
We met at his rural home on a Saturday to build a shed for his tools. I brought breakfast tacos from a local BBQ place. Brent wasn’t much interested in brisket, and I knew something was wrong. He complained of stomach problems and we discussed symptoms while we framed in the shed. He made frequent trips to the restroom, complaining of constipation. We talked about how he was too young for cancer, but definitely had something going on that needed a doctor. Before I left we had discussed an appointment with our gastroenterologist, which he began to try to schedule the following Monday. It took some time to get in, and the problems increased. The week after Thanksgiving, 2014, Brent received his diagnosis.
Brent had a room of firefighters at his first meeting with the surgeon to discuss a temporary ileostomy while the doctors attempted to shrink the cancer. We were beginning to see the Brotherhood that Brent had spoken about so frequently. Before they all left, Brent had challenged his fellow firefighters to go get screened. Firefighters are typically screened annually with an x-ray for the upper body, but as Brent said, they never get the lower half looked at. Men try hard to be invincible, brave, and tough, tending to rub some dirt on their wounds. Firefighters even more so. They see the worst things that can happen to a person, so something small is nothing to worry about. Without exception, Brent challenged everyone who came to his room to be screened for cancer.
We knew the path through the jungle of decisions, stresses, and pressures. From the outset, we had high confidence. We listened to the doctors and collaborated on a treatment plan. The treatment approach was quite different from what we had experienced with Londa, but then his cancer was in a different area. The goal was to bypass the colon, work on shrinking the cancer, then have a surgery to remove the affected area, eventually reconnecting the colon. Brent’s goal was a return to his passion and career in saving property and saving lives.
From his time in college on, Brent would always say he was “livin’ the dream” and he continued to say that when asked how he was doing. His employer was kind enough to allow a leave of absence. Fellow firefighters donated sick time so he would not miss a paycheck. The Brotherhood and family of firefighters came together in so many ways to support he and his fiancé through the treatments. Those who came to visit him left laughing and encouraged to live the dream.
In late Spring, it began to grow obvious that the treatments were not working. Brent had lost a substantial amount of weight. He was eating less and experiencing more and more pain. Londa and I got more involved and begin to be more aggressive, seeking answers for nutrition and a better understanding of why the treatments were not working. We partnered with Brent’s fiance for trips to the emergency room and to manage a growing list of medications.
Then, on July 11, 2015 Brent surrendered. He did not lose the battle. He surrendered. Why would I say that? Without exception, every caregiver he encountered right up until his last day, he showed respect and paid value to their service. He asked and remembered their names. He asked about how they made the choice to be an EMT, a nurse, a technician, a custodian, or even a doctor. He thanked them for helping them. He encouraged them to continue their work.
Brent was a life saver. In his short career, he saved many from car wrecks on the busy highway his station serviced. He had the joy of meeting many of those and hearing their story of recovery and survival. He pushed his siblings to have a colonoscopy. Brooke, at age 30 had pre-cancerous polyps. Brianna, at 25 had polyps. He kept repeating that he was the one to have the cancer so he could save the smart ones. His challenge to fellow firefighters to see a doctor had three of the Brotherhood diagnosed with treatable conditions. People continue to tell me how one of their family members or friends was diagnosed and treated for colon cancer because of Brent’s challenge.
Brent’s memorial service was attended by over 750 people, with firefighters from more than a dozen different departments. Nurses, doctors, and technicians from three hospitals attended. Story after story was told of how he did everything in “Brent time” and how he lived the dream. Today, his legacy is continuing to save lives as we issue the #525 Challenge (his badge number) – 1) build a relationship with doctor and see them for an annual physical, 2) insist on blood work to screen for cancer, and 3) get age/risk appropriate cancer screening.