Battling a rare cancer since 2019, Frank Nunez was given an escort Tuesday to his Crystal Lake home by the firefighters he worked with every day.
He was taken home for hospice care following treatment for terminal cancer, transported in the same ambulance he staffed for four years, according to officials at the Itasca Fire Protection District where he worked.
Nunez, 34, was undergoing treatment at Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital for a rare form of soft tissue cancer called synovial sarcoma, hospital officials said.
As his condition worsened, Itasca firefighters took shifts at the hospital, staying with their coworker and friend. Those same firefighters helped bring him home.
“We have volunteers coming down to take Frank on his final ride in the ambulance that he served in for the last four years,” Itasca Fire Chief Jack Schneidwind said.
“We have volunteers that are coming in off duty to make sure that Frank is comfortable and has the honor of being in the back of the ambulance for the last time,” Schneidwind added.
The cancer was discovered when Nunez began experiencing pain in his left leg. That diagnosis led to chemotherapy, radiation and surgery before the cancer went into remission, said Jill Edgeworth, a spokeswoman for Northwestern Memorial.
Then, in 2021, the cancer came back in Nunez’s right lung, Edgeworth said.
While participating in clinical trials following the cancer’s return, Nunez continued working at the Itasca Fire Protection District.
“He came in with a great attitude wanting to make a difference to the people that we served. And when you talk about somebody who looked forward to living each day, that was Frank,” Schneidwind said.
Nunez was readmitted to the hospital in September.
As the cancer progressed, firefighters kept vigil at the hospital.
As Nunez was intubated, he and his visitors would communicate by writing on a dry erase board, Edgeworth said.
“What it has done for our team though is brought us together, closer than we actually were before,” Schneidwind said.
“We have a total of about 24 firefighters in Itasca, and around the clock they’ve been keeping vigil … to support Frank and Christina. And to show how much we care about Frank,” he said.
Christina Patel is Nunez’s fiancee. They had met shortly before his first cancer diagnosis. The two celebrated Frank’s 34th birthday on Sept. 21 with a commitment ceremony inside his hospital room, Edgeworth said.
Nunez started his career in 2014 and joined the Itasca Fire Protection District in 2018, Edgeworth said. He had recently finished a fire inspector training class before being admitted to Northwestern Memorial in late September with terminal cancer.
He continues to provide counsel to other loved ones battling cancer, including his own mother, Edgeworth said.
His mother, Luz Nunez, received a stem cell transplant for leukemia, also at Northwestern Memorial, on Nunez’s birthday and the two were able to visit, he said.
“The two shared their final goodbyes via messages on the dry erase board,” Edgeworth said.