By Nona Tepper
On Feb. 9, firefighter Richard Gray will climb the 31 flights of stairs at the Oakbrook Terrace Tower, dressed in the full, 60-pound gear required as a member of the North Riverside Fire Department.
Gray aims to raise at least $3,000 this year in his annual climb for the American Lung Association, bringing the total he's raised for the group to nearly $40,000 over the last approximately eight years.
Last year, he received the coveted Impact Award for his dedication to the group; this year, Gray is raising funds at bit.ly/2MdOFdf.
Gray has climbed every year since 2010, trekking up flights in Oakbrook Terrace and Chicago, initially inspired after he saw a poster advertising the challenge in the firehouse. His thoughts turned to his father, Richard, who received a right lung transplant in 2010, after years of smoking, ammonia inhalation and inhaling "a lot" of smoke fighting Forest Park fires, Gray said.
Richard Gray Sr. served as a lieutenant of the Forest Park Fire Department for about two decades.
"There used to be a meat packing plant on Brown Avenue that caught on fire a couple of times and set off an ammonia leak. He took a little too much in and went into the hospital a few times," Gray said. "Just to even get on the donors list was incredible."
Gray Sr. realized he needed a lung transplant in early 2010, after seemingly endless tests and receiving approval from a group of pulmonologists to be placed on a donor list.
Gray said doctors thought they found a match in June 2010. His father arrived at Loyola University Medical Center, where he spent two hours being prepped for the surgery. But "bad storms" delayed the lung's arrival to the hospital and, by the time the organ arrived, doctors realized it wasn't a perfect match.
Two months later, at about 2 a.m., Richard Sr. received another call from doctors. He rushed to the Loyola's ICU, got prepped for the surgery and received a transplant.
Eight years later, Richard has suffered a few "minor setbacks" but is doing well, Gray said.
While at the hospital, the Grays made friends with the Patels, another family waiting for their father to receive a left lung transplant. After each underwent successful surgery, the families kept in touch, occasionally emailing each other updates and jokingly referring to the patriarchs as "Righty" and "Lefty." One year, Gray dedicated his climb to "Lefty."
"Each year, I'll dedicate my climb to somebody, whether it's a family member who's passed from lung disease, somebody who's currently afflicted by it, or a friend of the family, like Lefty," he said.
This year, he will recognize "the love of my life," his wife Renee, whose mother, aunt and cousin have all died of lung cancer. Thanks to a low dosage CT screening, doctors caught three "very, very small" benign nodules on Renee's lung this summer.
"Obviously she was very upset, so I'm basically doing this for her this year," he said.
Doctors will now monitor the nodules.
"It really hits home, which is why I started doing these climbs for my dad," Gray said. "I want to help others."
Growing up in the 1000 block of Beloit Avenue, Gray said he looked up to his father, eventually following in his footsteps and becoming a firefighter in 1990. He said his father's health struggles have left him undeterred about his career choice.
"The equipment we have today is far and beyond a lot of what that they have back in his time," Gray said. "Back then it wasn't really mandated to wear air packs into a fire. Back then, the tanks were a lot heavier, made of steel and didn't have a lot of air in it."
Gray said he starts training for the climb in September, by trekking up the stairs of the firehouse's hose tower in his gym clothes and riding a stationary bike. By December, he starts training in his 60-pound air pack, and climbing up the firehouse's staircase 16 times about three times a week, double the amount required to climb the 31 flights at Oakbrook Terrace Tower.
"You learn little tricks as you go along each time you do it," Gray said.
He's learned, for example, to keep his coat open, so he doesn't overheat while climbing the steps. Gray keeps cough drops in his mouth so his throat doesn't get too dry. He tries to pace himself, resisting the temptation to sprint the first 10 flights of stairs.
"Take it slow; it's a marathon, not a sprint," Gray said. "Unless you're in the best shape of your life, climbing 31 flights of stairs in five minutes is a lot harder than it looks."