A fire chief saved lives for 42 years. Now, in face of lung cancer, he battles for his own.
NICEVILLE — Michael Wright put his life on the line battling fires in Niceville for more than 42 years as chief of two departments, but now he faces a new danger.
After surviving lung cancer in 2018, Wright received news earlier this year that a new spot was found on his liver. He was initially given two to 10 months to live, but now an operation and treatment could change that.
His daughter and a close friend have started a GoFundMe page to help fund the cost.
Donate here:Chief Wright now battles a new danger
Firefighters mourn ex-captain:'Bill's got his own legacy': Ocean City-Wright firefighters mourn ex-captain killed in crash
Wright’s many decades spent breathing in smoke and fumes as a firefighter were ultimately part of what led to his current battle with cancer, according to the GoFundMe page.
Current East Niceville Fire District Chief David Birch joined the department in 2008 and worked alongside Wright for many years before taking over as chief in March. Birch said Wright was very dedicated to the profession and was a huge asset to the department and the community.
“It was a very small beginning, but we are at where we are right now because of what he did,” Birch said.
The East Niceville Fire District began as a volunteer department after it was formed by former Chairman Michael Marcolongo in 1976. Now it is a fully professional department staffed with paid firefighters because of Wright’s leadership.
After retiring from his position as chief of the Niceville Fire Department, he came back to East Niceville in 2005 at the request of Marcolongo.
As chief, Wright was instrumental in creating a pension plan and getting pay, benefits and medical insurance for the East Niceville firefighters. He also helped secure life-saving equipment such as air packs and the Jaws of Life, which is used to rescue victims of vehicle accidents.
“Chief Wright had been around the fire service for quite some time and he was kind of a visionary, but he was still kind of part of the old school,” Birch said. “He had enough vision to know what it takes to stand a fire department up from volunteer status to paid status, which is no easy task.”
Once diagnosed with lung cancer in 2018, Wright had to take some paid time off to undergo surgery to have his right lung removed, as well as several rounds of chemotherapy.
Wright returned to work at East Niceville after some of his tougher surgeries were finished. Two and a half years later, he retired from the career to which he had dedicated his life and took up the title of “Pawpaw” to his three grandsons.
“I would definitely say that he had dedication to the department," Birch said. "We all know that cancer is different for each individual, and each individual has to make the best decisions when it comes to themselves. I feel that Mike Wright really tried to continue to work, but eventually he knew he was going to have to retire.”
Just a few months after his retirement he learned that he had Stage 4 cancer, often referred to as metastatic cancer. That means it had spread from his lungs to his liver. The outlook wasn’t good this time around.
“The chemo has been brutal this time, coupled with the meds and immune therapy Chief has taken a beating,” the GoFundMe organizers wrote on the webpage. “Sickly, weak, unable to eat, sleep or stand without assistance, his body has begun failing him at times.”
“I can’t imagine what he’s going through,” Birch said. “We have had limited contact with the chief since his retirement, but we’ve tried to allow him his privacy.”
Wright recently was given a “dim glimmer of hope” after a PET scan showed no remarkable increase in the cancer cells and a slight shrinkage of the tumor. According to the GoFundMe page, the Mayo Clinic has agreed to operate on him, and now proton therapy, a type of radiation therapy used to treat cancer, is also a possible option.
Funds raised through the GoFundMe page will go toward the cost of the operation and the therapy, which are not covered by health insurance, according to the website.
"This is where we come in. Where we can help give back to one of our own, to pay back and pay forward a debt that this man never tallied," the GoFundMe page read. "Chief Wright spent a lifetime saving so many lives, we just need to try and save just one."
As of Thursday afternoon, only $3,035 had been raised — a small fraction of the $43,718 goal. To donate, visit https://gofund.me/e8a570f8.
Want more local news? If you're already a subscriber, thank you! If not, please subscribe and help keep coverage of the most important local news coming.