Dennis LeDoux will always remember Aug. 19, 2005.
That's the day the former Cudahy firefighter threw out his back while responding to an ambulance call. He and a co-worker were hoisting a patient out of a bathroom on a cot.
"I lifted her up and my back just like exploded, and that was it," LeDoux said. "My right leg went completely numb. My left leg felt like a chainsaw ripping through it from my lower back down to the tips of my toes."
Since then, the 39-year-old has been unable to work in the firehouse, and can barely perform household tasks.
Loses 'dream job'
Because he is no longer physically capable of performing the duties of his "dream job," LeDoux was forced to take disability leave.
He was then told the city would no longer provide him with health insurance.
Cudahy Fire Lt. Jeffrey Bloor, president of the local fire union, said past practice has always been that if a city employee was legitimately injured on the job, the city would cover the worker's health insurance costs.
"And everyone who has gone out has gotten health insurance up until me," LeDoux said.
Director of Office Services Carolyn Toms-Neary said if a city worker were to go on disability retirement, he or she likely would receive COBRA insurance through the state, which the worker would pay for out-of-pocket, depending on what is specified in the employee's contract, she said.
Firefighters are working under the terms of an expired contract that does not specifically state that a disabled firefighter's health insurance costs would be covered by the city.
"But it's a benefit that has always been supplied to city officials in the past," Bloor said. "It's a moral and ethical thing."
City paid in past?
Bloor recalled four Cudahy workers who went on disability retirement and had their health insurance paid for by the city.
Mayor Ryan McCue would not confirm if other employees have received health insurance coverage from the city.
"That benefit is not in the union's contract," he noted.
South Shore NOW has filed an open records request, seeking to document the number of city workers who have gone on disability retirement and received health insurance benefits.
Once a new contract between the firefighters' union and the city is ratified, Bloor hopes LeDoux's health insurance costs will be covered.
"It's an absolute tragedy," Bloor said. "We're trying to make sure all our firefighters are covered."
Attorney Robert Mulcahy, who represents the city in contract negotiations with the firefighters' union, could not be reached for comment.
When LeDoux became a firefighter, he said, he assumed he would always have benefits and health insurance. If he were killed in the line of duty, he believed that his benefits would be paid to his wife and three children.
"And somewhere along the way that spirit of taking care of the employee has been lost," LeDoux said.
LeDoux gets about $36,000 a year in disability retirement pay from the state, which is 75 percent of his former salary.
Major spine work
So far, LeDoux has spent more than $20,000 on his family's health insurance since December 2007, which was considered his last day on the job, he said. He was paying $1,490 per month, but that amount has now jumped to $1,580, he said.
He has had to undergo two spinal fusions along with a laminectomy, a spine operation to remove the portion of the vertebral bone called the lamina. He also suffers severe nerve damage in both legs and must walk with a cane so he doesn't topple over, he said.
LeDoux visits a pain management specialist on a regular basis.
"I've tried pretty much everything there is to try to alleviate pain, and it hasn't worked," he said.
Tough time coping
His back injury has prevented him from attending many of his sons' football and basketball games, and Cub Scouting events, he said.
"I've had to sit and watch other fathers play football with my kids in the backyard because I can't do it," he said.
It has been tough for LeDoux to cope with his injury, but he admits it could have been worse.
"I'm not burned or disfigured," he said.
LeDoux just hopes that none of his fellow coworkers get injured on the job, let go from their employment and left without health insurance coverage.
To say that a firefighter, injured on the job, is not entitled to the city's health insurance is the "real kicker in the butt," he said.
Chantel Balzell can be reached at (262) 446-6602.
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