By SUSAN C. INGRAM
Just two years apart in age, brothers Richard Nichols, 44, and Robert Nichols, 46, have followed similar paths in life.
In October, Richard who lives in Owings Mills, will have clocked 29 years as a volunteer firefighter at stations across the county including, Cowenton, Middle River, Jarrettsville, Liberty Road, and for the last year at Glyndon Volunteer Fire Co.
Robert was a career firefighter with Baltimore County, serving as a paramedic at the Middle River and Hillendale stations. His wife is also a paramedic.
But recently the brothers’ paths diverged when Robert was diagnosed with a lung disorder that is robbing him of the ability to breathe. He was forced to retire from the county fire department last year and go on disability.
“He was diagnosed with Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency,” Richard Nichols said.
According to the Alpha-1 Association, a nonprofit education and advocacy group for people with the disorder, the Alpha-1 protein protects the lungs from overproduction of an enzyme that in healthy people destroys damaged cells. But in people with a deficiency, the enzyme can begin damaging healthy lung tissue.
Such people are often misdiagnosed with asthma, emphysema or other breathing disorders, according to the association.
Such was the case with Robert Nichols, who was initially diagnosed with asthma and bronchitis.
“But he’d never had an asthma attack – ever,” his brother Richard said.
Last fall, however, after a severe attack of shortness of breath he went to the emergency room. Through subsequent blood tests he was finally diagnosed with the Alpha-1 deficiency at the beginning of this year.
Since the deficiency can run in families, several family members were checked, including Richard, who discovered that he also has the deficiency but has no symptoms and may never develop any lung problems.
Currently, Robert has less that 50 percent capacity in one lung and less than 60 percent in the other. He is on the list as a candidate for a double lung transplant with University of Maryland Medical Center’s lung transplant program.
Richard, along with Kim Tsirigos of Beef Shakes in Reisterstown, is organizing a benefit bull and shrimp roast July 20 to raise funds for medical expenses.
“We’re all stressed,” Richard Nichols said. “It’s been a twisted nightmare.”
But he said that many people, especially firefighters and their families, have stepped forward to help Robert and his family.
Tsirigos grew up behind Reisterstown Volunteer Fire Co. Her father was a volunteer firefighter, until, she said, “something happened to his lungs.”
“I have a soft spot for firefighters,” Tsirigos said.
The benefit is Sunday, July 20, from 1-6 p.m., at the Exhibition Hall at Timonium Fairgrounds. There will be food, a silent auction, raffles and games. Tickets are $35. For more information, or to make a donation, contact Richard at 410-925-6227 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information, go to Alpha1.org.
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