So far, more than 7,000 World Trade Center first responders are eligible for health care coverage through the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund. But the future of the program is unclear as Congress prepares to decide whether to continue its funding. NY1 Health Reporter Erin Billups recently spoke with a former police officer whose kidney cancer was discovered through the program and filed the following report.
Thomas Rachko ended his 20 year career as a New York City police officer sifting through World Trade Center debris for five months.
"It was the farthest thing from my mind that I would get sick," Rachko recalls.
First it was a runny nose, then trouble breathing and stomach problems. At the time, he was in prison for stealing drugs and reselling them as a narcotics detective. Still, he didn't think to enroll in the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund until 2012 at the encouragement of a fellow retired officer.
"In like August I started having a pain in my left reno quadrant," says Rachko.
After catscans and several doctor visits he was diagnosed with kidney cancer.
The World Trade Center Health Program assured him he would be taken care of.
"They put the care for me back in health care," says Rachko.
In January, he underwent minimally invasive robotic surgery to remove the tumor and part of his left kidney.
"As soon as the operating door opened and I saw that table. With that big, metal, all the lights, I was terrified," recalls Rachko.
But the usually fearless cop says had nothing to worry about. His surgeon, Ketan Badani, used a new technique that prevented damage to the healthy parts of his kidney.
"Target just the artery that feeds that tumor, and stop the blood flow only there. Cut the tumor out, sew the kidney back together, and that's why his kidney function is unchanged," says Dr. Ketan Badani, Mount Sinai Comprehensive Kidney Cancer Program Director
Exposure to carcinogens is a recognized cause of kidney cancer covered by the government.
"He was evaluated through the World Trade Center Program and got an imaging test that showed a spot in his kidney. It was found early, so he obviously was cured of this," says Dr. Badami.
Now Rachko is encouraging other first responders to enroll.
"You read stories about people who have worked down there and the volunteers who have multiple types of cancer. So it's a worry, but the best way to help the worry is to sign up," says Rachko.
He's urging Congress to renew the James Zadroga Act, which finances the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund, which is set to expire next year.
Congress will vote on the proposal sometime next week.