By: Sharon Aron Baron
A Coral Springs firefighter is fighting the battle of his life after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Paul “Pauly” Pietrafesa, 48, began his firefighting career with the Coral Springs Fire Department in 2005, where he spent several years working between the engine and rescue as a firefighter/paramedic. In early 2016, he completed the training and passed the tests to become a driver engineer.
It was in early 2015 when the married father of four began having abdominal pain and was mistakenly diagnosed with gallstones. It was soon discovered that he had developed pancreatic cancer. That spring, he saw several specialists and began aggressive treatment, which included multiple surgeries, chemo treatments, immunotherapy, and drug trials.
This past July, Paul, his wife Karen, along with his doctors, decided that there were no further treatments that would improve his cancer.
On August 3, Paul officially retired from the Coral Springs Fire Department.
“It was emotionally brutal,” said Karen. “They did an amazing tribute at the Performing Arts Center, but it was very hard emotionally for him to give up the job he lived for and wasn’t ready to give up.”
A graduate of Deerfield High School, Paul owned an auto repair shop working as a mechanic for 20 years but wanted to work for the Coral Springs Fire Department because he wanted something different and wanted to feel like he was making a difference with his life said, Karen. “It was the happiest I have seen him.”
The two met at the dental office that Karen was working for when initially she had tried to set him up with one of her friends. They married 15 years ago with Paul bringing his two children: Samantha and Jacob into their lives before they were eventually having two children of their own.
Life wasn’t without challenges before Paul became ill. Their youngest daughter Emma, 10, was born with a rare genetic disorder called Cornelia de Lange Syndrome. CdLS children are typically characterized by slow growth before and after birth leading to short stature and intellectual disability. Emma was born deaf, missing part of her right arm and left hand. She cannot walk or talk and is the size of a two-year-old.
“We just found a school that can accommodate and help her so she can get some social interaction because she’s an adorable child – the innocence and beauty of her is amazing because she is so stinking cute. Her smile can just light up a room,” said Karen.
Children born with CdLS have shortened lifespans and typically don’t live a long life because of their weakened immune and respiratory systems. “She’s had a rough go at life, and unfortunately, we’re going to lose her dad.”
Karen said that Emma does not have the capability to understand that her dad is dying like the three other children do, and said she would miss him being around when he’s not there, but won’t understand why as she has the mental capability of a two-year-old.
The Pietrafesa’s live in Wellington, but were trying to move to Coral Springs before Paul became ill.
“We spend all of our time in Coral Springs. Our kids actually go to school at the Atlantis Academy because they are able to accommodate Emma and Anthony, who has autism.”
After Paul’s diagnosis, they both tried to accomplish as many things as they could on their bucket list together. They’ve been to Disney World twice, Las Vegas, New York City, and even went zip-lining in Ocala.
As a firefighter, New York City was an extraordinary trip for Paul, said Karen. The World Center hotel they stayed at, is across the street from the World Trade Center, in full view of the September 11 Memorial and its reflecting pools.
On Thursday, Karen said that Paul began receiving hospice home care and is on pain-management.
She said that he loved working with the Coral Springs Fire Department and missed it because it was who he was.
“Being part of that family was the definition of his life. I can’t even put it into words what it meant to him to work with that group of people. They’re amazing. They’re an amazing group. They’re family; they’re supportive, they’re brothers and sisters – the support system is like none other that I’ve seen anywhere.”