POWHATAN – Mike Lecik is still trying to settle into his “new normal.”
Back in his Powhatan home for a few weeks after months of hospitalization, the veteran and local firefighter reflected on how drastic his life has changed in the last 10 months and how his community has helped him through one of the worst periods of his life.
This time last year, Lecik was a healthy husband and father of three who worked as a chief fire inspector for Fort Lee Fire Emergency Services, went to his daughters’ dance lessons, and volunteered as a firefighter at Huguenot Volunteer Fire Department in his spare time.
But then in January he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer. A few weeks later, he suffered a grand mal seizure that left him in a brief coma and then paralyzed when he woke up five days later.
“When I woke up in ICU and realized I was paralyzed and things had not gone very well with the treatment, I never felt angry or upset. It was how in the world are we going to fix this and keep life normal for my wife and daughters?” Lecik said. “Life changed. It was overwhelming. But my main focus was I’ve got to get out of here. I’ve got to get back to the girls and press on.”
Sitting in a motorized wheelchair in the upstairs of his Powhatan home earlier this month, Lecik reflected on the months that followed and what it has taken to get him back to this point, where he is back with his girls. Life has changed and they know it. Now they are figuring out how to live with it.
Since Lecik woke up from his coma in February, the months that followed have been a barrage of chemotherapy treatments, medical treatments, and physical therapy and occupational therapy sessions. And that was only what was happening at the hospital.
Lecik called his wife, Tiffany, a “rockstar” for how she has handled this situation. Overnight, she almost became a single parent to their three daughters, Amery, 16, Aubry, 12, and Adalyn, 6. It was obvious that it was a huge drain on her to handle all of that while still working full time as a bank manager, but “she has balanced incredibly,” he added.
The only way they have made it this far, Lecik said, was through the support of an untold number of people, friends and strangers alike. He couldn’t begin to express how grateful he is to all of the people who supported his family in ways he never imagined and made it possible for him to be home that day because of renovations to make his home more wheelchair accessible.
“Looking back at it, it almost seems a little bit surreal. I was so used to being that person in the community – volunteering or responding to emergencies. Then here I am, my family basically every day we are relying on other folks. It has been a huge blessing and humbling to think how many great folks there are in this community,” Lecik said.
When Lecik was a young man, he had two great goals in life – to serve in the military and to be a firefighter like his grandfather. When he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in October 1999, he got the opportunity to do both, serving as a military firefighter until his discharge eight years later.
“After that, it just kind of fit. I was good at it. It was always something different at work every day. It was always a new adventure,” he said.
When Lecik got out in 2007, he became a civilian firefighter, working in both private and government positions in the years that followed. The Leciks moved to Powhatan about seven years ago and Mike began working as a Department of Defense fire inspector, eventually getting promoted to chief fire inspector at Fort Lee.
Shortly after their move to Powhatan, Lecik also decided that since Company 2 was around the corner, he would go and volunteer.
Troy Blair, district chief of Huguenot Volunteer Fire Department, met Lecik when he joined the squad and found him to be a credit to the department. He was a good firefighter, forward to the point of bluntness at times, and “was always there for people.”
In recent years, Lecik became acutely aware of the higher risk firefighters face for getting cancer and other diseases. Everything that burns now is so much more toxic than it was 10 or 15 years ago, he said. Many natural products are gone out of the manufacturing process, whether it is cars, houses, or clothing, and have been replaced with synthetic materials.
“So for all those things, the toxicity now is incredible compared to what it was. When those things happen, whether it is a car fire, a house fire or a dumpster fire, getting those things on your skin or clothing now is way less forgiving than it used to be,” he said.
Blair recalled how his friend would remind his fellow firefighters to wash up and decontaminate their gear after calls as a form of cancer prevention.
“It was always a pet peeve of his. If your stuff wasn’t clean, he would clean it for you,” Blair said.
In the last few years, the fire service has lost too many men and women to cancer, which was why Lecik advocated so strongly about cleaning gear. But even as he focused on educating younger firefighters, he still didn’t think about getting it himself.
Long road to recovery
When Lecik was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, doctors told him they had caught it early and it should be containable with light chemotherapy treatments. He took the treatments and continued to work.
But in February, he became really sick from the chemo and was advised to go to the emergency room for medication. A few hours later, a grand mal seizure hit and Lecik’s life was rocked again for the second time in two months.
When he woke up from the coma, Lecik could not feel anything from the waist down. That has gotten better with time and work. He still can’t stand without aid, but he is regaining some control slowly and said the plan is to start work toward standing with a walker and getting the muscles to refire. He had also experienced damage to his right vocal cords because of emergency intubation, which limited speaking for a few weeks; broken his left arm completely, requiring surgery to put a rod in it, and had a hip fracture.
Doctors were cautious about his chemo treatments since they still don’t know why his body reacted so violently, he said. He goes for treatment once a week, and when the cancer markers are low enough, he will undergo a bone marrow transplant. There isn’t a cure for multiple myeloma yet, but Lecik is looking forward to the day he hears that magic word – remission. In the meantime, he is taking it day by day, sometimes hour by hour.
Lecik said he has been bolstered during his recovery by the awareness of what was going on around him. People were bringing his family meals. They were visiting him in the hospital. He was hearing from family, friends, co-workers and strangers.
He was months away from 20-year federal retirement when the seizure struck, and people started donating their vacation days so he could reach it. He is only about 120 hours short of reaching that goal and hopes a few more government employees would consider donating some of their vacation hours.
As they began to understand the situation better in the months after the attack, the Leciks realized they were facing the task of coming up with $90,000 to make their home wheelchair accessible for Mike and purchasing a van he could drive with hand controls so his wife wouldn’t be the only one able to drive anymore. Just to bring him home, the garage had to be modified, a lift installed to take him to the upstairs of their split level home, and the kitchen remodeled. There was also the issue of widening doors and making the master bathroom wheelchair accessible. The option to sell their home was brought up, but they refused to leave Powhatan if they could help it, he said.
Lecik was beyond touched when he learned of fundraising efforts by firefighters in Powhatan and at Fort Lee to help. He had seen the firefighter community come to the aid of one of their own before and even experienced it himself when he and Tiffany lost everything in a home fire in 2002 while living in Georgia.
Volunteers held a work day where about 50 people showed up at Lecik’s home and started the renovation process, such as putting in new garage door openers and a thermostat he could control from his phone. This included firefighters from Powhatan, Fort Lee, and all over the Richmond area.
But even beyond his fellow first responders, Lecik said his family has been helped by the Powhatan community at large. The Leciks were able to purchase a used wheelchair accessible van for a huge deal and a local auto shop gave a discounty on repairs.
“We love (the people who helped) and we appreciate them. There is no way we could have done this without them. There is no way I would be recovering and win this thing, so to speak, without them,” Lecik said.
He went on, “It has taught my girls a valuable lesson to stay involved in your community and be kind because you never know if you will need folks. They have seen the best in this community by far.”
A Facebook page called “Make Mike Great Again” has been set up to keep people updated on Lecik’s journey and needs. It includes a link to a fundraiser page that has been set up.
Huguenot Volunteer Fire Department will host another fundraiser for Lecik from 4 to 9 p.m. today, Sept. 25 at El Cerro Azul, 2650 Anderson Highway. Proceeds will go to the family.
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.