Rich and Susan Kubler sit in their Wiscasset home Friday. Darcie Moore / The Times Record

WISCASSET — Firefighter Rich Kubler is urging people to donate blood platelets after a national shortage delayed his diagnosis.

In early October, CAT scan revealed Kubler had stage 4 liver cancer that has metastasized and he has nodules in his lungs. His doctors believe the cancer is linked to the toxins he was exposed to working at Ground Zero after 9/11.

But getting that diagnosis confirmed took longer than it should have. Kubler needed blood platelets but found out there were none available anywhere in the country.

He and his wife, Susan, had a doctor write an order so they could hold a blood drive for Kubler. His fellow firefighters at the Hackensack Fire Department in New Jersey helped get donors lined up for the blood drive Saturday.

“We were not aware there was such an emergency in this entire country for blood platelets,” Kubler said. “I wouldn’t want to see anybody go through what I did. You could have a relative in a car accident.”

Kubler volunteered for a fire department in Hasbrouck Heights for a decade and then joined the Hackensack Fire Department in New Jersey in 1998 as a full-time firefighter.

“I just like the fact that I was able to help the community, and helping people,” he said. “It’s actually very gratifying, helping.”

He and other members of the Hackensack Fire Department went to the World Trade Center after the 2001 terrorist attacks. He spent four days there the week after the attack looking for survivors. He worked with the American Red Cross to set up relief stations, “and we worked on the pile,” he said. “We were right on it.”

“As much as I prepared to go there, it was beyond anything I could ever prepare for, mentally and physically,” he said, sitting in the kitchen of his Wiscasset home. “I really don’t want to talk too much about what happened.”

The toxic cloud left behind by the towers’ collapse has continued to claim victims. According to World Trade Center Health Program data, there are more than 9,900 living first responders diagnosed with cancer and more than 4,700 living survivors diagnosed with cancer. More than 31,000 people have received medical treatment through the World Trade Center Health Program, which provides care to those affected by 9/11.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 400,000 first responders, residents, workers and others were exposed to caustic dust and toxic pollutants in the dust and debris from the collapse. People exposed to the dust have also developed respiratory, gastrointestinal and mental health issues.

The Kublers moved into their new home in Wiscasset in July 2018, but Kubler planned to work another three years, commuting between New Jersey and Maine, before retiring. Instead, at the end of December, Kubler will retire on accidental disability related to his 9/11 illness. His cancer can’t be treated with surgery so all doctors can do is boost his immune system and help his body fight the cancer. He’s able to get those treatments in Topsham.

Kubler’s commitment to turning his health challenge into an opportunity to raise awareness about the importance of donating blood and platelets didn’t surprise Capt. Justin Derevyanik, who has worked with Kubler at the Hackensack Fire Department.

“As long as I’ve known him and as long as he’s been a firefighter he’s always been very strong-hearted, always been great to everyone on the job, a great family person, and he’s a great firefighter,” Derevyanik said. “He’d always love talking to one of the newer firefighters as they have questions with some of the stuff they have to learn.”

Another member of the Hackensack department previously died from a 9/11-related cancer.

“It’s family,” he said. “You come together stronger as a family and you do everything in your power to support the person who is sick and to help out in every way possible.”

The First Congressional Church of Wiscasset plans to host a blood drive in January.

A list of local blood drives can be found by visiting the American Red Cross of Maine website. According to the website, the platelet donation process takes about 3 hours and can’t be done at a blood drive.

Platelets can only be donated at select American Red Cross Donation Centers, which requires an appointment that can be scheduled online or by calling 1-800-RED CROSS.

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