Cancer took Karen Schuart’s life on the day that would’ve marked her 25th year of service with the Asheville Fire Department.
During the time she spent working in the downtown station, Schuart came to be a cornerstone of her firefighter family. Known as “Skippy” because of her upbeat, enthusiastic take on life, Schuart forged friendships and bonds with her comrades and the community at large. Her absence has left a void.
“There’s just this emptiness that you can’t explain, and I’m sure it’ll be this way for a long time,” said Kelly Klope, spokeswoman for the department and a close friend of Schuart.
Schuart’s death also called to mind a familiar and growing fear and the need for legislative relief.
On Jan. 31, she became Asheville Fire Department’s second casualty of cancer — now the leading cause of death among firefighters — in a span of less than 12 months. Firefighter Will Willis died of a rare form of kidney cancer in late February 2018.
The North Carolina Industrial Commission hasn’t yet determined whether Schuart’s will be declared a line-of-duty death, a designation that comes with additional benefits for her surviving family members.
But fellow Asheville firefighter and president of the local union Scott Mullins said he is “100 percent” certain Schuart deserves the distinction, which is rarely awarded to those who died of cancer despite its alarming prevalence in the field.
Asheville firefighter Mikey Riley is running 62 miles in honor of his late friend and firefighter Will Willis.Angela Wilhelm, [email protected]
Mullins said he is also confident Schuart’s battle with ovarian and intestinal cancer highlights shortcomings in state law, which doesn’t offer workers’ compensation to firefighters diagnosed with cancer.
“For us, this is really frustrating,” he said over the phone Thursday. “We know we have the support of the community, but we don’t always have the support of the government. Karen kept coming to work because she had to; she couldn’t afford to leave.”
Brian Turner behind legislative efforts
On Wednesday, Mullins traveled to Raleigh to meet with Rep. Brian Turner, a Democrat from Buncombe County. The two aren’t strangers. They’ve worked since the 2017-18 legislative session to the pass presumptive cancer legislation, which would extend greater benefits to firefighters afflicted with the disease.
Schuart’s name came up several times during that discussion, Turner told the Citizen Times in a phone interview Friday.
“These folks are putting their lives on the line every time they go to work,” Turner said. “What they’re doing needs to be recognized, and we need to make sure they’re respected and taken care of.
“Karen is an example of the type of situations we’re talking about here. I think it’s tragic when we’re in a situation where people are forced to work out the last days and weeks of their lives because they have no other option.”
Schuart was diagnosed in May. She continued working as an assistant fire marshal until Jan.1, when she took early retirement, Klope said.
Turner said he plans to work this legislative session with his colleagues in the House, and with industry representatives like Mullins, to pass presumptive cancer and special separation allowance legislation for firefighters. Past attempts have received wide support in the House but failed to clear the Senate.
Given the chance, Turner said he will tell Schuart’s story in an effort to move the needle.
“Great steps have been taken in regard to providing additional gear for firefighters, and that’s a great preventative measure,” he said. “But firefighters still get cancer, and when they do, how are we treating these folks?”
Schuart was a ‘hero,’ a ‘role model’
Schuart spent the last two and a half years with the Asheville Fire Department as an assistant fire marshal, but during the course of her long career she filled many roles.
She drove a fire engine for much of her 25 years. She fought hundreds of fires. She acted as a clown in a fire safety and prevention class that would travel to local elementary schools. And she was a founding member of the department’s female firefighter combat challenge team — a group of five women who competed in and won international competitions.
“At work, she was a hero who impacted so many lives,” said Mullins, who worked with Schuart for 12 years. “She had a tremendous impact on so many Asheville firefighters, especially the women. We don’t have that many female firefighters here, and the women looked up to Karen. She was a role model to us and to the community.”
For Klope, who joined the department shortly after Schuart, “Skippy” will be remembered as “almost like a sister.”
Klope and Schuart ate lunch together almost daily and both competed on the combat challenge team, along with Joy Ponder, a division chief and breast cancer survivor.
“She lived life to the fullest,” Klope said. “She loved life. She made the best of every situation.”
These qualities are what Fire Marshal Kelly Hinz will miss most about her friend. Hinz was Schuart’s supervisor during her last few years. She said Thursday that Schuart’s death is particularly hard given Schuart was so close with the other women in the department and that it was her positive personality that traditionally lifted people’s spirits during hard times.
“The women get to know each other — whether as a means of support or friendship,” Hiz said. “Being a woman in this field, where there’s not many of us, made us have commonality.
“We understood better how to encourage and be there for each other be it during hard times or good times. But under sad times, normally Karen would be that upbeat person.”
A celebration of Schuart’s life will be on Feb. 15 at Salvage Station off Riverside Drive. A service honoring Schuart will begin at 3 p.m. and a gathering following the service will start an hour later.
While the NC Industrial Commission’s verdict is out, the International Association of Firefighters has ruled Schuart’s death to be in the line of duty. Her name will be inscribed on the memorial wall in Colorado Springs, Colorado.