CLEARVIEW — Lt. Rick Peters looks nothing like the driver’s license photo that peeks out of his wallet.
He’s lost 30 pounds, his hair is gone, and, from the looks of it, he’s gotten 10 years younger.
Peters, a longtime paramedic with Snohomish County Fire District 7 in Clearview, was diagnosed in January with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The cancer, which attacks the immune system, is a known risk for firefighters, Peters said. Still, he never saw it coming.
Undetected for years, the disease swelled his organs to three times their normal size. He had been putting on weight without knowing why. His crew teased him that he needed to work out more — he was getting a beer belly.
Then, one night in January, extreme pain in his stomach and back landed him in the emergency room.
Firefighter Ryan Stupey was at home in Arlington when he got the call. Peters was in the back of an ambulance.
Stupey called another firefighter, Bill Ekse. They headed to the hospital in Bellevue, staying with Peters until it was time to drive him home.
“He would have done the same for either one of us,” Stupey said. “That’s just part of the brotherhood.”
Firefighters often rely on black humor to get them through the sickness and death they see, Ekse said. But their jokes failed them as one of their own came off the first wave of pain medication and had to deal with his diagnosis.
He started treatment a few days later.
The outpouring of support from family, friends and the fire service has been overwhelming, Peters said. He’s heard from people from as far back as kindergarten.
“You don’t realize how many people you touched, and then something like this happens, and it all comes back to you,” he said.
The doctors are hopeful he can be cancer-free by September.
Despite fighting cancer, Peters is no slacker. In addition to being a paramedic, he serves as president of the Local 2781 and does freelance work as a professional drummer. He’s also a district representative for the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters. He’s halfway through raising four children, and in a few weeks, the business he co-owns plans to launch its first product.
He’s too busy to sit around and feel sorry for himself, he said. He wants to inspire the crews. There’s too much to do.
The union work keeps him busy and keeps his mind on the good in life, he said.
“It’s all about attitude, having a good sense of humor,” he said. “My friends and family don’t let me have any time alone.”
He’s done two rounds of chemotherapy and has more scheduled every three weeks through August, he said.
The hardest part has been letting others help him, he said. He’s spent the last 24 years caring for others as a paramedic, and his family, friends and coworkers depend on him to be their leader and champion.
He knows he can’t put up a wall and try to get through the disease alone, he said. Since the diagnosis, he finds himself being more patient and understanding, especially with his children. He’s seen enough grief and trauma in the field to know that you don’t heal alone.
“It’s a journey for everybody,” he said.
Rikki King: 425-339-3449; firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Peters’ journal chronicling his battle with cancer at www.caringbridge.org/visit/rickpeters.