20 years later: Ground Zero work led to pulmonary fibrosis

(BPT) – Twenty years after 9/11, some World Trade Center first responders still struggle with long-term health complications brought on by the catastrophic event. For Tom Frey, a former New York City detective, the consequences started with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma – a blood cancer that can be linked back to inhaled dust from his rescue and recovery efforts at Ground Zero two decades ago. After his ninth session of chemotherapy, he developed shortness of breath and learned the treatment had led to bleomycin lung toxicity and pulmonary fibrosis (PF), a progressive, debilitating lung disease.

“I was a policeman, and the first three days down there, they didn’t give us proper equipment. They gave us paper masks along the way. We worked for months and months digging through debris,” said Frey. “After a while, they gave us hazmat suits, but then 2,000 feet away we would eat our lunch at a Red Cross food truck and take the top of our hazmat suits off. The wind blew white dust onto our food, and nobody thought anything of it at the time.”

Now Frey struggles daily to breathe and relies on a portable oxygen device. Despite his health struggles, he works to drive awareness about PF – especially during Pulmonary Fibrosis Awareness Month, which this year coincides with the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

“You’d be very surprised how little is known about this disease. I want to help people living with PF, especially the ones who are just starting out,” said Frey. “Having gone through it for so long, I feel confident I can be a resource. I don’t want to see a single person struggle like I did, so I’m going to keep advocating for high-quality care so everyone impacted by this disease can live longer, healthier lives.”

What is Pulmonary Fibrosis?

In simple terms, pulmonary fibrosis means scarring in the lungs, and it can be seen in many types of interstitial lung disease (ILD). Over time, PF can destroy the normal lung and make it hard for oxygen to get into the blood. More than 250,000 Americans are living with PF and ILD, and more than 50,000 new cases of PF and ILD are diagnosed annually.

Because the disease remains largely unknown, it can be difficult to diagnose. The main symptoms of PF may be hard to pinpoint because they are so common: shortness of breath, a dry, persistent cough, and fatigue. PF is more likely to occur in those that are 60 years and older with a history of smoking, or those, like Frey, who have used certain types of medications.

Growing Stronger during Pulmonary Fibrosis Awareness Month

The Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation (PFF) is dedicated to educating patients and the healthcare community about the disease all year long, but especially during Pulmonary Fibrosis Awareness Month.

“Understanding the symptoms and risk factors associated with PF is critical to engaging people nationwide in the fight against this lung disease,” said William Schmidt, President and CEO of the PFF. “Raising awareness of the disease is imperative to driving earlier diagnoses, advocating for needed research, and ultimately finding a cure.”

During Pulmonary Fibrosis Awareness Month, the PFF will share daily facts about the disease on social media (@PFFORG) to educate the public about its impact, and many prominent buildings nationwide will go blue for PF throughout the month in the #BlueUp4PF campaign. On September 25, supporters will unite with patients, families, and friends across the country to bring the spirit of the PFF National Walk Day to their communities.

“The PFF is a great organization; it’s helped me so much,” said Frey. “I’m going to keep on fighting. I hope that together, we can find better treatments and a cure for this disease.”

For more information about pulmonary fibrosis, visit www.aboutpf.org.