City of Hope patient Rusty Eichert had few memories of his dad, a Los Angeles County firefighter who died in service when Eichert was a toddler. The mental images were sketchy — mostly centering on fire trucks, the sorts of pictures a 4-year-old would love.
But for a man now 28 years old and fighting cancer, the memories were still too few and far between.
Fortunately, a twist of fate has changed that. A caring City of Hope nurse and a cadre of county firefighters have helped bring those memories alive, giving Eichert hope, optimism and a sense that his community supports him.
The story of renewal began in early July, when Julie Cox, R.N., a nurse in 4 East, was talking with Eichert and his mother, Paulette — as Cox often does. Eichert continues to undergo chemotherapy for melanoma, which was first diagnosed when he was only 14 years old, and Cox has been tending to him for about a year.
“His mother said to me, ‘Rusty’s dad died when he was just a kid, and now Rusty’s going through this,’” Cox remembered. “When she said his dad worked at a station in Claremont, I asked, ‘Station 62?’”
“Yes, Station 62,” Paulette Eichert responded.
Cox got a tingly feeling. Her own husband works at the same station. When she called him and asked if he knew of Eichert’s father — Raymond — he began to ask around. Two minutes later, a photo arrived on Cox’s cell phone: an image of a statue of Raymond Eichert that was cast after the firefighter died in a fall.
“That’s my dad,” Rusty Eichert said.
The connection sparked firefighters to rally around the Eicherts. Old-timers remembered the firefighter, whose number has since been retired, and department members wanted to make sure the Eicherts were cared for like family.
On July 13 — Rusty Eichert’s birthday — the firefighters held a ceremony for the Eicherts. Gathered around the station’s flagpole, they solemnly raised the United States flag to half-staff as fire Capt. Scott Zbinden praised Raymond Eichert’s service. Upon lowering it, he presented the carefully folded flag to the fallen firefighter’s son.
Afterward, about 35 attendees were invited to share cake, swap stories and look at a photo album of the Eichert family in the 1960s and 70s.
The renewed links to his past confirmed his desire to become a firefighter, if he can surpass his cancer. During two years when the melanoma responded well to therapy, he underwent some training, including emergency medical technician, or EMT, classes.
Despite his challenges, the young man urges others with cancer to stay strong. “Keep up the hope. Keep looking forward to the next day,” Eichert said. “It makes a difference. I like to look at the brighter side of life and act like I don’t have cancer.”