It started with a cough. Nothing out of the ordinary. Certainly, nothing to be concerned about – at least not for the first few weeks. But after a month, the coughing became persistent, it got deeper, and it lasted longer. That was quickly followed by growing fatigue that seemed to get worse with each day.
It didn’t take long for the symptoms to become alarming because Max Simmons of the NYFD had been actively involved in the attempted recovery of survivors and the massive cleanup after the World Trade Center collapsed on 9/11.
For years, the possibility lurked in the back of his mind that he might get sick like so many of the brave men he’d stood shoulder to shoulder with during the unimaginable nightmare that gripped New York and the nation. But, for almost two decades, he had been fortunate. However, as he attended funeral after funeral, it had been impossible not to worry that he could be next, and now he realized that in this unnerving game of Russian roulette, it was possible he had run out of luck.
Lorie, his wife of thirty-one years and mother of their twenty-nine-year-old daughter Ashleigh, worried constantly about his health. She personally knew many of the women who were now widows and the suffering she had witnessed firsthand terrified her that she might also lose her husband.
Once Max started showing signs of being sick, it was Lorie who relentlessly kept after him to get it checked out. He resisted at first because in some strange way not knowing kept the hope alive that he might be spared. But, eventually, his symptoms became so severe they could no longer be ignored.
The next month was filled with repeated trips to specialists and a seemingly endless battery of tests which eventually revealed that Max was suffering from a vicious form of lung disease that could be directly attributed to working the pile where the World Trade Center once stood.
Knowing that the harsh reality of being a first responder had finally caught up with him, Max stoically accepted the grim news as being inevitable. But Lorie and Ashleigh were devastated.
For years Lorie had bitterly watched as the health of the first responders was reduced to purely political considerations. It was deeply disturbing that Congress always seemed to be able to find the money to fund their pet projects, but when it came time to step up and assist those who had willingly risked their lives at ground zero, there was always an infuriating battle for funding.
Lorie could not begin to comprehend why lawmakers continued to refuse to appreciate the sacrifices that first responders like her husband had made – and were still making. To disrespect them by ignoring their health needs was unconscionable.
But for Max, it was even more bewildering. With each friend he lost, he had become more and more confused about why the politicians were willing to shirk their responsibility and look the other way when it came to the life and death struggles of the people he loved.
They didn’t seem to care that on the day the twin towers fell, Max lost many dear friends and that over the following thirty-six hours, he and so many others worked to the point of complete exhaustion in the effort to find survivors. And all the while, they were being exposed to a wide array of hazardous materials that would someday come back to haunt them.
The work at ground zero had been tedious and backbreaking, but they kept at it in the desperate hope that even one life could be saved. But now, years later, their drive and determination were costing many of them their own lives.
Although he realized it might be difficult for others to understand, Max knew, without a doubt, that he would do the same thing again. It was what he was trained for. His job was to help others in need – even if it entailed great risk to him. That was the very definition of a first responder.
However, knowing you made a positive difference did not make it any easier when the people you cared about began to suffer and die. At night when Max closed his eyes, he could see the faces of the men he had worked with at the pile who had succumbed to their illnesses. He saw the decimated families who’d lost their husbands and fathers, and he couldn’t bear to think about his wife and daughter enduring that kind of sorrow. But he knew that there was little he could do to prevent it.
The brutal reality of that awful day was now staring him in the face. Max should have been in the prime of life, with another thirty or forty years ahead of him, but, instead, he was frequently bedfast and struggling for every breath.
But no matter how bad he felt; he kept fighting. Week after week he battled against the odds because he was determined to face this test with the same courage he’d shown as a firefighter.
Over the next eighteen months, Max fought valiantly, but his illness proved resistant to every form of treatment that was attempted. It soon became obvious that it was only a matter of time before the relentless progression of the disease ravaged his lungs.
As his health rapidly deteriorated, the doctors determined that his only chance for survival was a double lung transplant. But even as they held out hope, they tempered it with the harsh truth. It was carefully explained that there were no guarantees that a donor could be found in time, and even if Max had a successful transplant, there was always the very real possibility that his body would reject the new organs – but the doctors also made it clear that this was the only way to prolong his life.
With no other options available, Max was put on the transplant list, and, just like tens of thousands of other families around the nation, he and Lori began the agonizing wait for a phone call that could save his life. Month after month they anxiously hoped for a miracle – but the call never came.
As the pressure mounted to find a donor, Lori could not help but feel bitter over what was happening to their family. She couldn’t understand why they were expected to endure so much pain and heartache. It just wasn’t fair. But she also knew that every family that lost a loved one because of 9/11 faced the same question. Just like her, they searched in futility for a reasonable answer to a catastrophic act of hatred that was beyond reason.
With the unrelenting passage of time, the likelihood of finding a suitable donor steadily diminished, and their fragile hopes faded. Lori began to be filled with despair as she watched her husband physically decline.
The doctors were sensitive to their desperation, so they waited as long as they possibly could, but, finally, they were forced to deliver the gut-wrenching news. Max and Lorie were told that the medical team had no choice but to remove him from the transplant list.
Max had waited thirteen months for a donor, but his health had declined to the point that a transplant was no longer viable. Although he could not help feeling like he had run out of time, he understood the doctors’ position. Max realized that if he went through with the transplant and the results were bad, then not only would his life be lost, but he would have denied someone else their chance to live, and there was no way he could be that selfish.
But Lori was too distraught to agree with the reasoning behind the decision. She could only see the situation through the prism of the unconditional love she had for her husband, so she pleaded with the doctors to reconsider – but it was no use. Their decision was final, leaving her struggling to forgive them for taking away the only hope they had.
Her husband had spent his entire career putting the welfare of others ahead of his own. But now, with his life hanging in the balance, she fervently believed he should come first. After all, he mattered just as much as any other person. Of course, Lori realized there were other lives at stake, but she couldn’t help wishing that her husband could be the one to survive.
That evening as Max labored to breath, she looked tenderly at the love of her life. He was a man of courage, character, and compassion who on their wedding day stood 6’3” and weighed 250 lbs., but now he was barely recognizable. His body was emaciated to the point that he was barely more than a skeleton, and it would be difficult for someone to believe that he was only fifty-three.
Lori could not stop thinking about the injustice surrounding the fact that in her husband’s long career as a firefighter, he had personally saved multiple lives and assisted with the rescue of many others. But now there was no one that could save him.
Tragically, it was only a short time before Max’s condition slipped from critical to grave. The doctors were powerless to alter the course of the disease, and they reluctantly told Lori and Ashleigh the truth. Their loved one had reached the point in his illness when it was time to halt treatment and make the switch to pain management.
The mother and daughter needed time to think. Eventually, they ended up in the hospital’s chapel, just like so many other families before them. They held each other and cried as they struggled to make the most difficult decision of their lives. Even though they both knew it was the end, they did not know how to let go of the man who meant everything to them.
Feeling intense emotional pain like they had never experienced before; they were overwhelmed with uncertainty until they finally realized it would not be right to make him suffer anymore. Although it was almost more than they could bear, the determination was made to stop treatment.
During the final week, the two women spent every possible moment with Max. Lorie kept a vigil, never leaving her husband’s bedside, and Ashleigh visited every morning and evening.
On the last day of his life, the hours slowly ticked by as the man who had chosen to serve others began to fade. Max had exhausted every bit of his strength. As his long struggle began to wind down, his breathing became so shallow it was barely perceptible. His loving wife and adoring daughter, the two most important people in his world, were on either side of the bed when his chest rose for the final time. For a moment there was nothing and then the awful realization swept over them.
Unable to control their overpowering sense of loss, both women broke down sobbing. Lori leaned over and gently kissed her husband’s forehead as his daughter held his hand up to her cheek. Even though they’d known for months this moment was coming, Lori and Ashleigh could not believe it had actually happened. After everything they had been through, it just didn’t seem possible that he could really be gone.
But the man they loved with all their hearts had now suffered the same fate as so many of his friends and coworkers. The quiet passing of Maxwell James Simmons meant that one more husband, one more father, one more first responder, and one more 9/11 hero had been lost.
Some day in the near future, the number of deaths resulting from the aftermath of the terrorist attacks will outnumber the actual victims that were killed on that horrific day. In both cases, the staggering loss of life will continue to tear at the soul of our nation.
While we remember the innocent victims, who were murdered in all three locations on September 11, 2001, we can’t forget about those who are now paying a terrible price for the courage and compassion they displayed during our country’s darkest hours.
We have a responsibility to stand with them and their families as they fight for their lives. We cannot turn away and abandon them. We must be willing to meet their physical, emotional, and mental needs and provide comprehensive financial support for their treatments. To do any less is to dishonor the dedication and commitment of the men and women who respond to danger in a moment’s notice.
Recently, Congress finally approved adding billions of dollars to a compensation fund for 9/11 workers through 2090. That is a welcome development – however, for Max Simmons, and so many others, it came too late.
As Americans, we must always be willing to take care of those who have spent their lives taking care of us.