On Thursday, ABC aired a new action-drama called Station 19, the second spin-off to Grey’s Anatomy. The show follows the lives of firefighters working at Seattle Fire Station 19, a few blocks down from Grey’s Anatomy’s Grey Sloan Memorial and modeled after (sometimes even filmed on location at) a real firehouse in Seattle.
In fact, little about the concept is fabricated – not even the flames. The actors have to wear real firefighter gear for their own safety. And the writers weaved in all the elements that keep Grey’s fans hooked – emotional storytelling, deep human connections, and a high-stakes environment – to depict as authentically as possible what firefighters really go through. That includes health problems seldom spoken of by the American public.
Episode 1: “Stuck”
The plot begins with a 2-hour pilot episode about the lead character Andrea “Andy” Herrera (Jaina Lee Ortiz), whose father, the station’s Captain Pruitt Herrera (Miguel Sandoval), is admitted to Grey Sloan Memorial after falling from a burning building. There, his daughter is distraught to discover he has peritoneal mesothelioma, a type of cancer found in the abdomen.
“That’s why you passed out,” she says, angry at his dishonesty. “You have cancer, Dad. Stage two.” She reads from a doctor’s note: “Symptoms include, in order of escalation, fatigue, loss of appetite, irritability, cardiac arrest. How many of these have you been having? Were you ignoring them or just neglecting to tell me?”
Many patients are shocked to be diagnosed with mesothelioma, a cancer that is commonly mistaken for the common cold or flu whose symptoms arise decades after the tumor forms. Families themselves must work through a variety of difficult emotions. But like cancer survivors so often do, the fire chief hides his condition so as not to worry his family – unfortunately, with negative consequences he hadn’t expected.
The rest of the episode finds the younger Herrera with a lot to grapple with. While proving herself worthy to take over her dying father’s job, she must come to terms with his unique circumstances battling a rare and extremely lethal disease. Caused exclusively by asbestos, mesothelioma is a very serious disease with a terrible prognosis.
Fighting More Than Fire
The show’s premiere comes 3 months after Ohio State University began a new study on firefighters, which aims to better understand their occupational exposure to smoke and the unique risks such exposure presents. This marked 1 of several major research advancements in the past several years, following revelations that firefighters are exposed to a number of known or suspected toxic substances on the job, including asbestos.
What we know so far from research is disturbing enough: that about 60 percent of firefighters die from some sort of cancer. They face a 102 percent greater chance of developing testicular cancer, and twice the chance of developing mesothelioma, than the general population.
However, experts argue that research is so far inadequate and has failed to protect the nation’s firefighters and other first-responders from a very real and disproportionate threat. Often too small or inconsistent, studies haven’t yet been able to scientifically prove the link between smoke exposure and cancer. Until they do, firefighters struggle to provide the evidence they need to seek justice for their injuries in court.
Research into how we can better help our brave firefighters continues, but what if a television show could lend the issue attention it needs?
‘Station 19’ and Mesothelioma: Will It Depict the Truth?
While it’s so far received mixed reviews, the show is clearly playing an important role in raising awareness about a rare disease. Mesothelioma affects a relatively small share of the population with only about 3,200 new diagnoses each year, but its scarcity amounts to a critical need for treatment research and greater understanding of its causes.
The important thing to recognize about mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases is that they are entirely avoidable. If asbestos companies hadn’t spent decades hiding a known carcinogen in dangerous consumer products and construction materials, firefighters wouldn’t have to put their lives on the line in more ways than 1.
Just as important to recognize is firefighters’ immeasurable bravery. Now that asbestos companies’ secret is out, firefighters know what to expect from a typical workday. How do they get through it, aware of the potential costs?
“I do this job because I love it,” said Herrera, bracing herself for a future without her father. “I don’t need a prize. Every day here is a prize. Every life saved, every fire put out.”
Of course, every firefighter’s life is just as precious.
Perhaps families of mesothelioma survivors will find comfort in such a relatable story. Station 19 is expected to run for 10 episodes; catch it next Thursday on ABC at 9 PM EST.