Firefighter Jennifer Winchell was diagnosed with cancer in early 2020. Crump’s Law protected her job while she fought to recover.
Jennifer Winchell has fought fires in Arkansas for thirteen years. But this year, she encountered her most dangerous fight yet: cancer.
First responders face an increased likelihood of developing cancer and dying from cancer than the regular U.S. population. It makes sense, of course – firefighters are exposed to high levels of smoke, asbestos and other known carcinogens daily in the course of their job. But protections for this occupation hazard are woefully insufficient. For many firefighters, a cancer diagnosis can lead directly to a loss of their job, which means a loss of health insurance, too. Firefighters have our backs in the scariest emergencies. But too often, no one has their backs when faced with a health crisis.
Arkansas recently made progress to break this cruel cycle when the state legislature passed Crump’s Law, which guarantees firefighters more sick leave if they get cancer on the job. Crump’s Law allows firefighters the time they need to recover without losing their jobs. The law is named for Nathaniel Crump, a firefighter who had to go back to work while he was dying from cancer because he had run out of sick time. Crump passed away from colon cancer in June of 2017. Crump’s friend and fellow firefighter Matthew Stallings, along with a bipartisan group of legislators led by Rep. Nicole Clowney, worked tirelessly to push the bill through the state legislature until it passed in April of 2019.
Winchell is the first firefighter in Arkansas to qualify for Crump’s Law. She knew Crump a little when he was alive, and had even worked a fire with him. Less than a year after Crump’s Law passed, Winchell was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma breast cancer.
Exposure to harmful smoke and toxins means firefighters are at an increased risk of contracting different types of cancer in the line of duty. Source: the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society
Toughing Out Treatment
The diagnosis came in January of this year, followed by surgery in February to remove the tumor. Next came chemotherapy. “And that is no joke,” she said. “It was rough. It literally takes every ounce of energy out of your body.” Still, she feels grateful that she “only” had four rounds of chemo. “I got lucky. Most people get eight, twelve. Some people have it for the rest of their lives.”
A tough moment came in the third round of chemotherapy, when Winchell started losing her hair. But she was tougher than that moment. “It took me a couple days to get over that. But then I said, ‘There’s nothing I can do about it.’ You gotta embrace it, go with it, so that’s what we did,” she said.
Another low point was when she couldn’t take care of her beloved two boxer pups, Jack and Gemma. “One time after chemo treatment,” she said, “I couldn’t even get up to feed my dogs. That was frustrating, and I had to call my dad and ask him to come get the dogs and keep the dogs for a couple days because I couldn’t even get up to let them out… I don’t want to put anybody in a bind. And of course he came and got them and it wasn’t a problem, but I just… I don’t like people waiting on me. I like to do my own thing. But there were times where I said, ‘Ok. I’ve got to have some help.’”
Next came the radiation: every single Monday through Friday for an entire month. Winchell said it wasn’t as bad as the chemo, but still, “It takes a lot out of you. The fatigue, you don’t have any motivation.”
Hope in a Stressful Time
At the beginning of her diagnosis, Winchell worried about her sick leave slipping away on top of everything else. Crump’s Law was so new at the time, she didn’t realize at first that it applied to her. She worried constantly about her dwindling sick leave hours, and the possibility of losing her job. “Almost every day, every time a shift rolled around, I knew 24 hours was being taken away,” she said. “It was stressful.”
When a coworker suggested she apply for Crump’s Law sick leave, Winchell looked into it. “I knew it was there, but I didn’t know that it applied to me so specifically. And then we started reading about it and I said, ‘This is what this is for! This is exactly what this is for,’” she said.
It was a huge relief for her when the process took effect. “As soon as everything was approved, I was able to then not use my personal sick leave hours, I was using this Crump’s Law leave, and that really helped secure my sick leave hours. That way, I didn’t get down so low…the whole diagnosis has been stressful enough, and when you get something like this and it takes a little bit off your mind, it’s a good feeling.”
Firefighter Jennifer Winchell contracted cancer on the job in early 2020. She has since become the first recipient of Crump’s Law, which provides first responders sick leave time so they can focus on treatment without fear of losing their jobs.
Fighting to Get Back
Winchell is still healing, and itching to get her former energy level back yet. She is eager to get back to doing what she loves. “It’s frustrating, because I don’t sit well. I am always up- working, doing something, fixing something, building something, gardening- anything. And I would get out there and try to do my normal routine, and I would get out of breath and have to sit down. That was probably the most frustrating part for me, is not being able to do my normal stuff that I love to do. That was rough. But it’s getting better every day.”
She’s in remission, and wants to get back to work as soon as possible. She says that becoming a firefighter “was the best decision I ever made. I wish I would have started sooner..I’ve always been grateful for my job. I know that I have a great career. But now I’m even more grateful. I know a lot of people in a lot of cities and a lot of states don’t have something like [Crump’s Law] in place. There’s been a lot of people to go through this who haven’t had this opportunity that I’ve had, and it’s made me really…like I said, I’ve always known that I love this job, and I’m very very happy with what I have. Now I’m even more grateful.”
The power to help people like Winchell and Crump lies in local politics – positions like city board members and state legislators. Matthew Stallings, who led the advocacy for Crump’s Law, is now running for state representative in his district. For Winchell, local politics weren’t really on her radar before this. “I’m going to be very honest,” she said. “When it affected me, I paid attention. If it didn’t affect me, I didn’t follow it.” Now she has a new perspective. “Once it hits close to home like this did me, and I did go through the process and the steps and I saw how it worked…I have way more information now than I did then. Seeing how it works behind the scenes, you can pay more attention to it.”
Jennifer and her fellow firefighters hope for the support of local citizens and representatives, especially in light of the sacrifice they make for us in the line of duty every day. “Ultimately,” she said, “It’s [about] people having our back.”