Firefighter Lorenzo Abundiz (Santa Ana Fire Department, California) had it all. He felt invincible. His fellow firefighters nicknamed him "Mongo" because of his size and strength. He felt honored to be a firefighter and had a passion for his job; so much, in fact, that he had been called a "Fireman's Fireman" by his comrades because he put so much heart and enthusiasm into performing his duties. Like many of his buddies in the fire service, he would do anything to save anyone, including animals, from life threatening situations. He even saved his fellow firefighters. And for that specific reason, in 1992, Lorenzo was awarded the California State Firefighters Association's Medal of Valor after he rescued firefighters trapped under a burning facade. The rescue was recreated for television on the program "Rescue 911," narrated by William Shatner, and first aired on February 4, 1992. (Watch the episode here.)
But the sacrifices Lorenzo made throughout his 24-year firefighting career, including countless exposures to toxic atmospheres, would eventually catch up with him. And his staggering medical challenges would begin.
One day in early 1998, as Lorenzo helped rescue a young girl from a house fire, he pulled his right lat muscle. A few months later, on April 6, 1998, he walked in to Santa Ana City Hall to conduct some business. A staff member named Peggy Beeuwsaert provided him with the assistance he needed. Lorenzo was struck by Peggy's kindness--and by Cupid's arrow. He felt a strong desire to see her again; so a few days later, he sent her a box full of different types of candies and chocolates in gratitude for her assistance, then invited her on a ride-along. Their relationship progressed, and they began to fall in love. Things couldn't be better.
But that lat muscle injury kept bothering him--and what had originally been diagnosed as a pulled muscle turned out to be a lump. On May 8, 1998, just one month after he and Peggy had met, doctors diagnosed it as a rare and highly aggressive cancer called leiomyosarcoma. He was given only a 4% chance of survival.
Once the diagnosis changed to cancer, the City immediately dropped his workers' compensation coverage, refusing to acknowledge even the possibility that the cancer had any causal connection to his 24-year firefighting career. As a result, an urgently needed surgery was delayed for over a month as Lorenzo scrambled to get approval for the surgery from his own HMO insurance. By that time, a second tumor had formed, with the spread of satellite cancer cells likely.
At one point during the ensuing long and drawn out fight for workers compensation benefits, a piece of encouragement arrived in the form of a letter from Assemblyman Louis J. Papan dated June 28, 2000, who wrote of the City's actions, "As this process has elapsed my staff and I have hoped that common sense and humanity would prevail in this situation. I am sorry that has not happened yet."
It never did.
On June 22, 2001, while still fighting the leiomyosarcoma, and two months prior to being forced into an early medical disability retirement, Lorenzo married Peggy in the middle of Times Square, New York on ABC's Good Morning America (GMA) after viewers voted for them as having the most amazing love story. Three New York firefighters were among the attendees, GMA anchors Diane Sawyer and Charles Gibson signed the wedding certificate, and a dalmation dog served as the ring bearer. Lorenzo's radiologist/oncologist was one of the bridesmaids, his firefighting crew were his groomsmen, and The Reverend Leslie Smith joined their hands together in marriage as taxis passed by during morning rush hour traffic.
Immediately following the wedding, it was announced to the couple during the show that $10,000 would be donated in their name to the families of the three New York firefighters who had lost their lives during the tragic Father's Day fire less than a week before. (The couple had asked that their all-expenses-paid honeymoon be cancelled so that those funds could be donated to the families of the fallen firefighters. Instead, the show made the donation and still sent the couple on their honeymoon.) Read the New York Post article here.
Miraculously, in September 2003, Lorenzo was declared cured from the leiomyosarcoma cancer. But just one month later, in October 2003, he was diagnosed with a second cancer, this time in his bladder. Although California's presumptive laws cover bladder cancer as a condition caused by firefighting, and doctors told him the pathology showed traces of tar (suspected to be caused by the roof fires he had fought alongside his comrades), Lorenzo decided not to submit a workers' compensation claim to the City because he did not want to suffer through the same stress he had experienced back in 1998 when he had tried to fight for proper medical treatment at that time. One low point he recalled was sitting in a deposition hearing with drainage tubes hanging off of his side following his first cancer surgery, feeling like a criminal because he was asking the City to accept the leiomyosarcoma cancer as work related so that he could receive adequate medical care to save his life.
CODE 3 FOR A CURE IS FORMED
Code 3 for a Cure was born in a hospital bed in ICU in March 2006, when Lorenzo looked up at Peggy and said, "I'm tired of cancer. I'm tired of seeing my buddies suffer and die from it. Some day, I'm going to drive a fire engine across America to honor and remember them, because it was they who paved the way." At the time, neither one of them realized the significance of that statement. Somehow, though, it ignited a burning drive that would eventually become Code 3 for a Cure.
In June 2008, almost totally healed from his bladder cancer, Lorenzo held true to that promise he had made to Peggy from his hospital bed two years earlier. He would call the journey "Code 3 for a Cure" Mission of Honor and Hope Across America. The term "Code 3" had been used at his fire station whenever they would respond to a call that required both lights and sirens. It was considered to be a call of the highest urgency. Lorenzo thought it an appropriate name for his mission because he saw an urgent need to eradicate cancer and felt that part of finding a cure was to help those who are most heavily afflicted by it--his fellow firefighters across the country.
On June 13, 2008, Lorenzo and Peggy, along with Firefighters Jeremy Abundiz and John McKnight, departed from the Los Angeles City Fire Department, driving a fire engine across the country and back. In 33 days, they visited 59 fire departments in 24 states, collecting the names of firefighters who had lost their lives to cancer. The crew conducted memorial ceremonies in both Los Angeles and New York, in which they read the names of the firefighters to honor and remember them. A memorial fire bell that was carried on the apparatus was used for the ceremonies, and was rung out once for each name called. The crew also conducted ceremonies at various fire departments along their journey. As Lorenzo visited fire stations across the country with his team, he shared his experiences and encouraged fellow firefighters to follow their safety guidelines, utilize their protective equipment, and get their cancer screenings.
But Lorenzo and Peggy wanted to do more. They recalled what they had gone through during the worst times. Not only had they experienced financial devastation due to an avalanche of medical bills, but they had also experienced a nightmare of having to fight to get proper and timely medical care to address Lorenzo's cancer. Lorenzo didn't want any firefighter to endure what he had experienced. So he and Peggy decided that Code 3 for a Cure would not end with one trek across the United States but, rather, would continue on to become a nonprofit 501(c)3 public charity which, in addition to completing an Annual Mission of Honor and Hope, would exist primarily to provide financial assistance to active and retired firefighters across the United States who are battling cancer and facing a financial hardship. Lorenzo and Peggy cofounded Code 3 for a Cure based on the conviction that no firefighter should have to endure what Lorenzo, and many others like him, experience when facing cancer.
On September 11, 2008, the IRS issued its determination letter approving the Code 3 for a Cure Foundation (C3FAC) as a nonprofit 501(c)3 public charity retroactive to June 1, 2008.
Unfortunately, Lorenzo's cancer battles weren't over yet. Later during the same month C3FAC received its approval as a nonprofit organization (September 2008), Lorenzo underwent his final systoscopy to check for any more cancerous tumors in his bladder. Thankfully, he was declared cured from this second cancer after a 10-year battle that had begun in 1998 with the diagnosis of his first cancer. However, due to a prior elevated PSA reading, the doctor performed a needle biopsy of the prostate during the same procedure and it was discovered that he had prostate cancer. Thus began yet another fight against cancer for Lorenzo. Ironically, back on June 11, 1999, he had spoken at the Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center on National Cancer Survivor Day to help unveil the new U.S. postage stamp for prostate cancer awareness. Now, almost 10 years later, he was fighting it himself.
In the spring of 2009, Lorenzo underwent treatment for his prostate cancer at MD Anderson's Proton Therapy Center in Houston, Texas. The Houston Fire Department opened its doors to Lorenzo, allowing him to stay at Station 33 while undergoing treatments. The camaraderie and brother/sisterhood Lorenzo experienced from the Houston Firefighters helped him tremendously in dealing with the emotional and physical effects of treatment. While there, Lorenzo learned of the Firefighter House project (the renovation of old Houston Fire Station 27) which, once completed, will provide a place to stay for firefighters from around the country who are undergoing cancer treatments in the Houston area.
Now a three-time cancer survivor, Lorenzo credits his faith and his survival instincts with helping him through the medical calamities he has endured. He also credits his parents for teaching him how to deal with life's struggles in a positive way, as well as Peggy for keeping his spirits high. "There is only one power on earth that can bring back happiness and health to those who have lost it," says Lorenzo. "That is the power and magic of true love."
Contrary to their storybook wedding, it has been anything but "storybook" for the couple. In addition to battling three cancers, Lorenzo has suffered a myriad of other medical calamities, including a detached retina which required emergency surgery, a nephrectomy, surgical herniations, and countless trips to the emergency room to address heart related issues. They have had their own share of financial distress as well, including losing their home.
In 2014, Peggy began representing Lorenzo and Code 3 for a Cure (C3FAC) by competing in athletic races in firefighter gear, including helmet, SCBA, turnouts, and boots. In doing so, she joins other athletes across the country who race for C3FAC. Why all the heavy gear? To call attention to firefighter cancer and the struggles firefighters often face when battlling the disease--and to send out a visual message that, in spite of the protective equipment they wear, firefighters are much more likely to contract cancer than the general population due to the toxins to which they are exposed in the line of duty--yet too often they don't get the critical support they need when battling the disease.
Says Peggy, "My inspiration is Lorenzo. He wakes up every morning totally focused and driven towards a purpose. He constantly utilizes his athleticism--and sometimes sheer grit and determination--to overcome the painful and debilitating after-effects of cancer treatments and other firefighting related injuries in order to work to get help for other firefighters who are struggling like he has. Our drive, along with that of other C3FAC team members, is rooted in the serious need for justice--in the form of support--for all firefighters who are suffering with cancer."
Now, Lorenzo, the retired firefighter and Medal of Valor recipient whom doctors have referred to as "high risk," "a complex case," and a "walking miracle" is joined by Peggy and other athletes, as well as a Board of Directors and fire departments, corporations, and individuals across the country, in answering a different call: help firefighters who are battling cancer.