October 14, 2002 at 1:30 PM EST - Updated June 29 at 7:50 PM
AKRON, Ohio (AP) - A firefighter who says he contracted AIDS on the job is working on behalf of a law that would automatically grant workers' compensation benefits to firefighters who contract any of several diseases.
Stephen Derrig, 35, learned he had AIDS in March 2000 when trying to figure out what was leaving him breathless and without energy.
Derrig said he knew he didn't fit any known risk factors for AIDS. He was certain the immune deficiency disorder came from his work as a paramedic.
"When you come on the job, you are told that you will be taken care of if you become injured or sick from the job," Derrig told the Akron Beacon Journal. "When you are in your most vulnerable state, you shouldn't have to fight."
Although he filed for workers' compensation almost immediately after learning he had AIDS, the case was not resolved until July. That's when the city -- following up on its pledge to re-evaluate its aggressive stance on appealing awards to employees -- dropped a court challenge it had filed.
City officials, citing confidentiality, declined to comment on the reason for initially challenging Derrig's award.
The 14 pills a day Derrig needs to suppress the virus cost $1,500 a month. They now are covered by workers' compensation, along with the medical bills related to his AIDS treatment.
Derrig is trying to help pass legislation that would cover firefighters who get certain types of cancers, Hepatitis C, HIV and AIDS. Studies show firefighters contract these diseases at a higher rate than average.
Nationwide, the International Association of Fire Fighters is pushing for similar legislation.
The union says the law would ease the difficulty firefighters face when they find out they have one of the diseases listed but cannot trace its origin to a single call.
Twenty states have the law, but bills for its adoption have stalled in the Ohio Senate and House.
The union also wants fire departments to provide confidential, voluntary testing for HIV and appropriate counseling when needed. An earlier test in Derrig's case would have prevented his disease from progressing from HIV to AIDS -- meaning he'd have a better prognosis and would be taking lower doses of medication.
Derrig doesn't know when or how he was exposed. He came into contact with the blood and body fluids of people he was called to help several times.
His doctors say he may have been infected by AIDS for several years before his positive test -- he started with the department in 1992 -- yet neither his wife nor his children contracted it.
"Without question, the scenario could have been unbelievably worse. We could have been looking at a family of four, all with AIDS," Derrig said.
Derrig has been back at work since September 2000. He staffs a firetruck only and does not work as a paramedic.
He and his wife have taught their children to take precautions -- washing their hands carefully because their father can get sick easily -- but other than that, their life hasn't changed.
"I'm not dead and I have two arms, two legs and can see and I can play ball with my kids," Derrig said. "We remind each other all the time how lucky we are and how much worse it could be. People deal with struggles every day. Our hardships are no worse."
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)