• Randy Meyer

    Fighting More Than Just Fire

    His Story
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Randy Meyer | Fighting More Than Just Fire

The physical demands of a firefighter are grueling. And 32-year-old Randy Meyer knows that. Whether it be climbing flights of stairs with 150 pounds of equipment strapped to his back, dragging a 200-pound hose across a city block, or carrying a full-grown adult out of a building that’s about to crumble to the ground, he’s always been up to the challenge. “For me, it’s just part of who I am,” Randy says. “I’ve always felt the need to help people, and this is just perfect for me.”

Randy spends most of his time at the firehouse on Penn Avenue, in Lawrenceville. Every week, he completes two or three 24-hour shifts, and during which he answers 10 to 20 calls. But, that doesn’t mean there are 20 fires a day. “People think firefighters just put out fires, but that’s not the case,” he explains. “We do it all. We respond to vehicle accidents, medical emergencies, water rescues, people trapped in buildings, and so much more.”

He’s been a firefighter for nearly 10 years. And 10 years from now, you’ll still likely be able to find him hustling around that building on the corner of 40th and Penn. But about five years ago, Randy’s passion nearly came to a tragic end.

At first, Randy thought nothing of it. He would experience minor indigestion and sometimes felt pain after eating. But when the pain turned excruciating, he knew that something wasn’t right. He was referred to a gastroenterologist, but his symptoms were written off as acid reflux. The medications were no help. Time passed, and the symptoms continued. He often felt bloated and found his appetite wasn’t what it had been. Multiple doctor visits found nothing, and Randy continued to suffer. Finally, a CT scan ordered by a different gastroenterologist revealed his problem: pseudomyxoma peritonei, or PMP. Randy had never even heard of this. Not many people have. PMP is a rare type of cancer that starts with a tumor in the appendix. The tumor grows, bursting out of the area where it started and spreading to the abdomen, or belly. Once in the belly, more tumors form and make a jelly-like substance. This eventually fills up the belly and can push on other body parts. It can even block the intestines or cause them to fail, which can have devastating results.

A Plan of Action

Randy needed to act quickly. He visited a local hospital, but with PMP being such a rare disease, they were unable to help. Then a family member stepped in and set up an appointment with David L. Bartlett, MD, vice chairman of surgical oncology and gastrointestinal services at UPMC. After looking at Randy’s CT scan, Dr. Bartlett wanted to start treatment immediately. “Randy’s cancer was very invasive. We had to have a plan of attack and treat his condition very aggressively," says Dr. Bartlett, who sees patients at UPMC CancerCenter, which in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, is the region’s only Comprehensive Cancer Center as designated by the National Cancer Institute.

"We're just so happy that everything turned out the way it did, and I’m looking forward to what comes next for us," Stephanie says.

Within a week, Randy was under general anesthesia on an operating room table. Dr. Bartlett and his team of experts were ready to begin the task of removing the tumors growing inside Randy’s stomach. The procedure, called cytoreduction combined with hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy, or HIPEC, for short, is something Dr. Bartlett has done more than 1,000 times, and it takes up to 17 hours to complete. First, the abdomen is opened up and the tumors are scraped, cut, or burned away. Then, because tumor cells are more vulnerable to high temperatures than normal cells, chemotherapy heated to 107 degrees Fahrenheit is circulated into the abdomen. Medical staff then rocks the patient back and forth, ensuring the cancer-killing drug reaches every possible area of the abdomen. Then the team suctions out the drug, closes the wound, and the surgery is over.

For Randy, recovery took several months. But even after surgery, he was still not out of danger. Because his cancer was so aggressive, more tumors returned, and he had to have the same surgery again 14 months later. A new round of chemotherapy followed, and then a third surgery. This time, it was to remove tumors that spread to his lungs and diaphragm. "I definitely went through the gauntlet," Randy says. "But after my last surgery, Dr. Bartlett told me he removed mostly all of the cancer, and I couldn’t have been happier." Due to the complexity and nature of the cancer, there are still several small traces left, which are being monitored by Dr. Bartlett.

Living the Good Life

Six months after his last surgery, with no signs of any tumors in his belly and feeling healthy for the first time in years, Randy went back to work at the firehouse. He says that his fellow firefighters are like family to him, and they kept in touch when he was going through the worst. When he was too sick to work, someone always covered his shift, making sure that he never missed a paycheck. “I can’t thank these guys enough,” he says. “They’re all like my brothers. I’d do anything for these guys.”

Randy also was able to marry his longtime girlfriend, Stephanie. “She’s my everything,” he says with a smile. “She helped me get through those tough times where I didn’t know what was going to happen next. And by the grace of God and support of our family, we were able to have the wedding of our dreams.” Randy and Stephanie have embraced the concept of living each day to the fullest and have been traveling the world. “We’re just so happy that everything turned out the way it did,” says Stephanie. “I’m looking forward to what comes next for us.”

Randy (center) with his fellow firefighters at the Pittsburgh Fire Bureau Station 6 in Lawrenceville.
David L. Bartlett, MD
Surgical Oncologist