Lifesaving saved his life

By on April 12, 2017

Local firefighter’s volunteer physical catches cancer early

Firefighters save lives. In the case of Keith Rothermel, being a firefighter may have saved his.

The 19-year veteran firefighter of the Brickerville Volunteer Fire Company took part in a new program offered by the Warwick Emergency Services Commission (WESC). He was one of 60 firefighters since the program’s inception in 2015 to undergo a voluntary physical, which included a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test. This specific test is not normally covered under his standard health insurance until the age of 50.

“To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to (get the physical) because I just had one with my family doctor,” said the 48-year-old Rothermel. “To be the leader and encourage others I decided to comply.”

It was a great act, said Duane Ober, WESC administrator.

“With what happened with Keith, it really opened some eyes of some other members who may have been hesitant to go through the physical,” Ober said. “Now they are a lot more open to the idea that there are true benefits to (the program).”

Rothermel took the physical in October and the results were delivered to his family doctor. His PSA numbers were high. The PSA test is used primarily to screen men for prostate cancer and measures the amount of prostate-specific antigen in the blood. PSA is a protein produced by both cancerous and noncancerous tissue in the prostate, a small gland below the bladder.

“My family doctor contacted me and suggest I see a urologist,” said Rothermel, who turned to Lancaster Urology.

He met with Dr. F. Michael Rommel who performed an internal exam and noticed an irregularity. He recommended a biopsy. Two weeks later, Rommel reported the biopsy was positive for cancer and made a plan to address the issue. He recommended Rothermel read “Prostate & Cancer” by Sheldon Marks.

“Prostate cancer is one of the most common cancers affecting American men, with over 186,000 new cases diagnosed in the United States annually; one in six men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during his lifetime,” the book states.

Per standard procedures, Rothermel waited eight weeks for any surgery. In the meantime, he met with Dr. Christopher A. Woodard to discuss options for robotic surgery.

“We decided to go with that surgery and (Dr. Woodard) had me back to work in two weeks,” Rothermel said. “They are top of their game. I spent one night in the hospital … now I have some cool scars.”

Rothermel underwent a robotic prostatectomy, a minimally invasive surgery performed using a robotic interface. The procedure broke new ground in 2000 by becoming the first of its kind approved by the FDA for general laparoscopic surgery. On Feb. 7, the surgery removed his prostate and lymph node.

“Had I waited until the age of 50 when my (regular) health insurance picked it up, Dr. Woodard said … it probably would have been too late,” said Rothermel.

He stops just short of calling the early detection a miracle, but places faith in the hand of God, to whom he is grateful. He is also grateful he still has a job.

“I began working (at Quality Custom Cabinets, Inc.) the week before Christmas and then in early January told them I may need to be off work for six-to-eight weeks. They decided they would hold my job, which they did not have to do, because they believe they are in my employment relationship for the long haul. Although I was only off for two weeks, knowing that I had a job when I was able to return was a huge relief. I really do work for a company that lives their values,” said Rothermel.

He is also back at the fire house and was elected assistant chief in January.

Originally from Lebanon, he and his wife Lisa, who is from Lititz, bought their Brickerville home in 1998. Lisa is a kindergarten teacher at John Beck Elementary, and they have two daughters, Megan, who graduated from Warwick High School in 2013, and Meredith, who will graduate this spring. One day in 1998, Rothermel received a flyer in the mail about volunteering for the fire company. He decided to check it out.

“I found it was something I enjoyed doing because I was always in human resources. The fire company gives me the opportunity to help the community but also do something I don’t get to do all day,” he said. “The more I got into it, the more I decided it was something I liked to do … it’s one way to live out the Christian lifestyle because you are really helping people at their time of need.”

Unlike many volunteers, Rothermel did not come to the station with a background in a skilled trade nor with mechanical expertise. Being the director of human resources at QCCI and having spent his career in management, he is often tasked with office work at the station.

“I do get to go out on calls,” said Rothermel, whose aggressive cancer seems to have been completely removed.

His doctor-patient follow-up after a recent round of blood tests is on April 17. So far, 60 firefighters from the four stations comprising WESC have had physicals, which included the PSA test.

“That’s not everyone. Our main focus is for our incoming volunteers,” Ober said. “In the meantime we are asking all of our current firefighters to go and get tested as well…. What happened with Keith is the intent of why we are doing this … so they can start treatment early.”

The exposure to cancer-causing elements is a big concern for fire departments. When entering a situation, a firefighter does not know exactly what is burning. Almost all combustible matter produces carcinogens when burned. For example, electric wiring insulation in a home contains dioxins, pressure-treated wood can contain arsenic and hexachlorobenzene, and some upholstery may contain formaldehyde. All of these carcinogens can lead to cancer if inhaled or ingested.

“When exposed to the byproducts, the possibility for lung cancer, and especially prostate cancer, is really high,” said Ober.

The reason for the member physicals is not just to detect cancer. Guidelines for the program encourage physicals every five years for members up to age 39, every two years for those age 40 through 60, and after 60 every year.

“We want to make sure our members are healthy for their own benefit, but also to do the job of firefighting. It is a very dangerous and physically exerting job, and we want to make sure our people are healthy,” said Ober. “We (were) already having blood work done for other reasons, so we thought for a couple extra bucks we’d have (a PSA test) done as well.”

This experience hasn’t really changed Rothermel’s outlook on life, but it has prompted him to encourage all men to follow his lead.

“As a Christian, I know where I will go when I die, but as the surgery date got closer I did think about what I would miss in my lifetime if things didn’t work out,” he said. “I did decide I want to tell men to get their PSA tested.”

His message is “don’t put off the testing.”

“Talk to your physician for guidance as to what age to begin,” he says. “I do not know what the medical reasons are for not getting tested, but I am glad I was tested.”

On Sunday, Rothermel hit the pitch in his over-30 soccer league. The day after, he reported the usual aches and pains associated with physical activity, but no discomfort associated with the surgery.

Michael C. Upton is a freelance feature writer and regular contributor to the Record Express. He welcomes reader feedback at

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