ELKHART — Two men who have made careers out of laying down their lives have found others will support them when they need it, too.
Elkhart Fire Inspector Rob Smith and Captain Vito Palumbo gathered at a benefit in Smith’s honor Nov. 19 hosted by the Firefighters Local 338, along with dozens of people who ate, drank, danced and raised more than $5,200 to help Smith battle Stage 2 pancreatic cancer. Palumbo is recovering from brain injuries he suffered Aug. 25 when he was struck by an SUV near Memorial Hospital in South Bend.
“They really showed me the love that they have for someone,” Smith said of those who attended the benefit at the Elkhart Moose Lodge. “To have that kind of support just lifted me up and gave me the strength to keep going.”
Smith called his cancer a “defeated foe” and said he and his doctor remain upbeat. He hopes to defy the number of people who succumb to one of the most aggressive forms of cancer. Eating remains tough for him, as the side effects of chemotherapy give food a bad taste and leave him nauseated. He will have surgery soon at a hospital in Indianapolis.
“I feel like I’ve got this cancer beaten,” he said.
Along with money garnered from the benefit’s entrance fee, Goshen firefighters raised $1,000 for Smith, and the winner of last weekend’s 50/50 raffle, Elkhart firefighter Matt Rody, donated the approximately $2,000 he won to Smith.
Smith knows he has much to be thankful for despite the hardship he’s endured this year.
“People doing things like that who know of me and know of my situation, to do something like that for me, I almost don’t have words,” Smith said.
The benefit was only the most recent way in which Smith’s fellow firefighters have supported him since his diagnosis in August. In the past few months, they’ve brought his family dinner, taken up a collection for him and have given him gift certificates. That allowed him to buy a Bible to use while teaching Sunday school at the Church of Cassopolis in Cassopolis, Mich.
“It’s changing me and making me appreciative,” he said of the support he’s getting.
Palumbo returned home earlier this month after spending several weeks at Memorial Hospital and Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana in Indianapolis. Now he attends outpatient rehab at Elkhart General Hospital three days a week. Palumbo hopes to return to work sometime after Jan. 1, though it might take time, he said.
“When people saw Vito,” said Jerry Slack, vice president of the local firefighters union, “it was something really special and really good to see one person who was just in an accident a couple of months ago who has recovered really well. To sit down and talk to people and shake hands, it was good to see that.”
Palumbo received similar support from the firefighters’ union and the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 52 in September when they donated several thousand dollars to him from the 13th Annual Riding to Remember Fallen Police/Firefighter Charity Ride. There, more than 1,000 people rode motorcycles in remembrance of the police officers and firefighters who perished in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said Elkhart Cpl. James Ballard, union president.
Smith and Palumbo are “strong and rugged” people who are letting others help them, and other firefighters who have known and worked with them for 20 or more years see them as family members, said Elkhart Assistant Fire Chief Shaun Edgerton.
“You do all you can for them because you know they’d do the same for you,” Edgerton said.