|Saturday, January 22, 2000||
I've been a registered nurse for 25 years, as well as a union leader and nursing educator. It is widely known that the Hepatitis C virus is transmitted by blood-to-blood exposure, a common occurrence in the work of firefighters. I know the health risks they are exposed to daily; I have seen these brave souls in action, as they answered my calls to 911 when a patient in his home needed emergency care. My respect for them is enormous.
At first it seems strange that people would hesitate to identify Hepatitis C with the dangerous work of the firefighter. Or maybe not. One reason employers withhold life-saving treatment has been understood by economist Eli Siegel, who explained that our economy, in which people are seen solely in terms of profit, is based on contempt, the "disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world."
It is contempt when city officials weigh the lives of firefighters in terms of dollars and cents. Some officials prefer to talk about budgets and cost restraints, as though it would be more "cost-effective" to let a firefighter die from Hepatitis C than pay for his or her treatment.
Shame on city Fire Commissioner Harold Hairston, a veteran firefighter of 35 years, 20 of them in the field, for hesitating to confirm that Hepatitis C is work-related. Every minute he stalls detracts from firefighters' morale and working conditions. In a letter published in the Dec. 8 Daily News, firefighter Fran Malloy wrote: "When I was hired, they told me I may be exposed to communicable diseases .... The very person who told me that was Harold Hairston, now fire commissioner."
I know personally that Hepatitis C is a major work-related illness because I contracted it in my work as a nurse. And, like the Philadelphia firefighters, I know what it's like to have an employer act as if your illness is an inconvenience and try to deny you benefits.
Not one more moment should pass before the firefighters of Philadelphia get the medical coverage to which they're entitled. If we wish to ensure that adequate, kind health services are available for all workers, we need only ask this ethical question, one Eli Siegel himself asked: "What does a person deserve by being a person?"