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Fire chief battles cancer

Fire chief battles cancer Crowdfunding campaign set up for longtime Logan Township firefighter

Rattlesnakes aren’t typically part of the medical diagnostic process, but for a local fire chief, a snake bite led to the discovery of cancer cells in his blood.

“I was laying on the ground in 2017 under a boat I had recently bought,” said Jason Baker, the Logan Township United Fire Department fire chief. “And I felt a burning in my calf.”

Baker didn’t feel the snake’s fangs sink into his leg, because when he sits or lays down for long periods, parts of his body go numb as a result of Lyme Disease, which he contracted from tick bites in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The rattlesnake never buzzed its tail, and the fire chief said he might not have noticed it if not for a timely phone call.

“My phone started ringing, so I pulled myself out from under the boat, and there was the rattlesnake,” Baker, 59, recalled. “I looked down, and there’s two holes in my leg.”

Pulling out his knife, Baker cut open the bite, cleaned the wound and called the doctor as a severe headache set in.

“Luckily, it was a dry bite, so it only caused a bacterial infection,” he said. “When the neurologist was doing her bloodwork for the bite, she found cancer cells.”

Shortly after, Baker was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer, B-cell lymphoma, which causes the body to produce too many lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell, according to the Mayo Clinic.

“I was told I had five years to live, but I figured that was just a red flag and went to get a second opinion in Philadelphia,” Baker said.

Doctors in Philadelphia advised Baker they would observe the disease’s progress for a while, rather than start immediate treatment and risk damaging his organs, he said.

In the fall of 2020, Baker’s care moved back to UPMC Altoona, where he is currently being treated with monthly chemotherapy and a regimen of vitamins and supplements.

With the new treatment plan, however, came a new stack of bills.

Baker’s medical debt currently tallies up to about $150,000, but his insurance is only covering about $30,000 of the cost.

Hometown hero

Born in Altoona, Baker started his volunteer firefighting career at the age of 12, cleaning up the fire station and washing the trucks.

Logan Township Emergency Management Coordinator Jeff Blake said he was a couple years behind Baker at Altoona Area High School, and remembers the fire chief would frequently attend class with his fire pager in tow.

During a water skiing accident when Baker was about 17, Baker broke his back, and so he didn’t play a lot of sports, but said he did enjoy weightlifting.

Both Baker’s father and grandfather were volunteer firefighters, so it seemed natural for him to follow in their footsteps.

After graduating from high school, he worked several jobs, but settled into the position of plant manager at Lawruk Machine & Tool Co., recently retiring after 14 years with the business.

Throughout it all, he worked his way up the ranks of volunteer firefighters to become the Logan United fire chief.

During his career, he said Logan United pioneered a certification program and started a medical quick response team in Juniata Gap.

“My firefighting days are behind me, but I enjoy my position in the command role,” Baker said. “I can facilitate training and help the younger people.”

‘Time of need’

Emergency medical personnel spend their lives in service to others, often putting their own lives in danger for the good of the community.

As such, they don’t always think to ask for help in return, Blake said.

When Baker’s medical bills began piling up, Blake said the Logan Township United firefighters and the board of directors decided to pool their resources and create a crowdfunding campaign to help tackle Baker’s medical debt.

“A lot of us go way back, and we’ve been through these challenging life events together,” Blake said. “Members of this organization want to do everything we can to take care of our own.”

A www.gofundme.com account was created Jan. 7 to help Baker defray the medical costs, and so far, donors have raised about $3,400. But they still have a long road ahead to reach their goal of $300,000.

“We are asking for the community to now help (Baker) in (his) time of need,” a campaign message states on the www.gofundme.com account. “Even with everything he has endured, he is still trying to make a difference in the community.”

Blake said the fire department can’t fight this battle alone, and if community members are willing to help, they can donate to Baker’s campaign on www.gofundme.com or on the fire department’s website at www.ltfire.com, or by sending a letter to Logan Township United Fire Department at 611 Grandview Road, Altoona, PA 16601.

Blake said donations sent through the fire department website or to the firehouse should clarify they are for Baker’s medical bills so the funds can be earmarked and separated from other donations to the volunteer organization.

Despite Baker’s diagnosis and encounters with ticks and rattlesnakes, he said he still enjoys outdoors every chance he gets.

“If it’s not fishing, it’ll be hunting or spending time with my grandkids,” he said. “As long as I am able, I’ll be in the woods.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ike Fredregill is at 814-946-7458.

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