Firefighters training

He wrestled with kidney cancer for a decade, fought like a demon, but Dave Rehnke took his last breath on Monday, the 11th of January. Rehnke worked for 26 years as a firefighter in Peoria, rising to the rank of captain. He loved his city, his peers on the front lines and the job—though it was firefighting that killed him.

I met Rehnke five years ago, at the Arizona Legislature, where the state’s firefighters, clients of mine, were pushing to expand the roster of cancers presumed to be caused by their profession. Rehnke, newly retired from Peoria, was five years into being eaten alive by renal cell carcinoma, a cancer undoubtedly caused by his line of work, with its smoke, soot and burning poisons.

He testified before a legislative committee about how the disease metastasized into his lungs and the debilitating effects of chemotherapy, about how just one of his drugs cost $90,000 a year, and about the months he’d spent in court suing to get the workers’ comp he so clearly deserved. Don’t let this keep happening, he begged. Don’t make firefighters fight job-related cancer and bankruptcy simultaneously.

The legislators, unmoved, did nothing to expand the law.

Rehnke continued to advocate for his former colleagues year after year. It seemed to take a little more out of him each time, but he never slowed down, never quit. Of course, fighting a few dozen heartless politicians is nothing compared to beating back rogue cells intent on murdering you.

Finally, last February, the Legislature passed a law expanding the number of cancers covered by firefighters’ workers’ compensation insurance. I’m glad Dave lived long enough to see it, that he had that victory to celebrate. Because in a profession of heroes, Capt. Rehnke was one of a kind — a man fully committed to helping not himself but every other firefighter who wears turnouts today or will one day put on the boots.

Dave leaves behind his wife of almost 29 years, Brenda, and their two children Shannon and Dustin. I remember him telling me about getting his diagnosis back in 2011. His doctor gave him a 5% chance of surviving 10 years. Rehnke, who refused to miss seeing his young kids’ teenage years, basically told the doctor 5% was a silly number and that he had no intention of dying. So he didn’t. Dave rode his bike, screamed at the TV rooting on his beloved Minnesota Vikings, raised a beautiful family, and built a lasting legacy for himself as the director of the Arizona chapter of the Fire Fighter Cancer Support Network. 

At a time when our nation seems awash in selfishness, Rehnke exemplified the concept of service before self, living one’s life for a cause greater than individual gain. Hunter Clare, president of the Peoria Fire Fighters, put it like this:

“This is a guy who continued to fight not only for his family but for everyone in our profession, for each of us, even people who aren’t on the job yet,” Clare said. “He had such passion for it. He didn’t want anyone to go through what he went through, what his family went through. In a profession of people willing to sacrifice, he was willing to sacrifice even more to try to make sure this would never happen again.”

I kept the notes from my first conversation with Rehnke, hoping I’d never need them for a story like this. “I know my time is coming eventually,” he said back then. “But before it does, I want to do everything I can to make a difference. I am going to keep fighting because this matters.”