Sunday, April 21, 1996
Hero's wish to help others dies hard

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

If I'm ever trapped in a burning building, I want somebody just like Paula Duncan Anderson to be assigned to rescue me. She wouldn't give up until she carried me out. She'd chop down the door and crawl through the black smoke. She'd beat back the flames and dodge the collapsing walls until she found me.

Or die trying.

At least I think she would. I didn't know her, but I feel like I did, don't you? Her smile and baseball cap became as familiar as her name.

For more than a year, people all over town were flipping cheeseburgers, serving up vats of chili, selling cookies and doing just about anything else we could think of to keep this woman alive. Cincinnati City Councilman Charles Winburn donated part of his 1995 salary increase. So did Todd Portune.

Some prisoners at Lebanon Correctional Institution took up a donation to help her battle breast cancer. City workers gave up vacation time. There was even something called a Late-Night Gospel Skate in her honor.

We really wanted her to win this one.

''She was a fighter, and it's good that she's resting now,'' her husband, Tim, said. Resting was not what she did best. In 1984, Paula and two others were the first women hired by the Cincinnati Fire Division.

''There were 61 of us in the class,'' a male classmate said. ''But at the academy, Paula faced real day-to-day challenges unlike the rest of us. You know, can she cut it? Can she carry the dummy? Can she climb the ladder?

''All of this with the media staring down her throat, along with some old-timers in the department who were saying, 'Omigod, a woman.' But the way she handled it, she more than proved herself to everyone there.''

Ten years later, another challenge. And we were staring down her throat again. Breast cancer. Worse, it had spread to her lymph nodes.

She decided, even though the odds were not terrific, to go for broke. After surgery and several rounds of standard chemotherapy, she wanted a bone marrow transplant.

Her doctors told her this was her best chance, and the sooner the better.

The city's insurance company, Community Mutual, refused to pay for her treatment. She wasn't sick enough yet.

She must have had a good laugh about that. Because there's nothing like a good round of chemotherapy to make you feel as if you're about as sick as you ever want to be. And she was asking for more. The reason she needed the bone marrow transplant was that doctors told her that she should take even more chemotherapy, a dose so lethal that she'd need new bone marrow to survive.

Ever been seasick? Or had food poisoning? Now imagine how much courage it takes to know that you'll feel that bad - and worse - for days, even weeks. That's what Paula Duncan Anderson was agreeing to do.

I remember thinking that I might be tempted to just pack it in. Quit. Then I saw pictures of her with her daughter, Jasmine, 4. And I understood. She also has older children, a son, Darrell, and another daughter, Danielle. She wasn't just fighting for her own life.

I also understood why, after the cancer came back, invading her spine and lungs, she fended off morphine.

''My goal is to spend as much time with my kids as possible,'' she told a reporter. Time unclouded by drugs, if she could help it.

Paula Duncan Anderson, just 34 years old, died last week. I think we can assume that she never really gave up. And the reason seems clear. Her last assignment, one she accepted with heroic grit, was to mother her kids.

And she died trying.

Laura Pulfer's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax to 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU-FM (91.7 MHz) and is a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.