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Injured Salt Lake City firefighter says city no longer paying for essential treatment

Posted at 4:49 PM, Sep 08, 2023

SALT LAKE CITY — After battling wildfires in California in 2017 and coming home injured, a Salt Lake City firefighter is trying to get the help he needs.

Evan Fitzgerald’s dream has always been to help people.

“When I was young, my dad was killed in a tractor accident on our farm in Cedar Valley. I remembered the first responders who came and tried to help us, and I revered them. That kind of grew in me, that desire to be that," he said.

He was a volunteer firefighter, did his certifications, became an EMT and eventually joined the Salt Lake City Fire Department.

“We’ve worked really, really hard to have the opportunity to help people in Salt Lake,” Fitzgerald said.

It was a job that also took him to California to help battle wildfires in 2017 as part of the FEMA response. But on his first day there, he was hurt.

“I was hit on the head by a tree branch that broke. Broke my helmet and sent me down a hill about 200 feet,” Fitzgerald explained.

For the dad of three boys, that day changed everything.

“I was diagnosed with a concussion, developed a cough like the next day when I went back to duty, couldn’t get out of the smoke, so my body just couldn’t recover," he said. "I developed a reactive airway asthma that was diagnosed just a few months after and that progressed into this disease and branched off into relapsing polychondritis.”

“When he came back, the biggest thing I saw was that he had a traumatic brain injury, so it changed his personality,” said his wife, Sarah Fitzgerald. “He wasn’t able to control his emotions. We went through marriage counseling. We’ve been through hell and back.”

The city awarded him the Purple Cross for getting injured while on the job and paid for some of the post-concussive therapy and other treatments.

“I was getting help, and they were saying, 'Alright, you’re not done, you still have a lot more to do,' and the city said, 'Nope, you’re done,' so I didn’t have funding to finish a lot of that therapy," Fitzgerald said.

About three years later, he was still dealing with the impacts of that injury while working with the fire department.

“My medical condition forced me to retire,” he said. “I was so sick I couldn’t do it. Tried to fake it till I made it, everything was progressively getting worse, and it was unsafe. I almost passed out one time trying to show a lift.”

With his condition, even breathing is hard.

“The extreme fatigue, I’m fighting all the time to breathe… the costochondritis basically means that there’s swelling and hardening of the cartilage in my rib cage as well, so expanding my rib cage, it takes energy," Fitzgerald said.

Once he was off those benefits, the family has been on their own to make ends meet — traveling across the country for care, doctor’s appointments and medical equipment — without compensation from the city.

“We’re baffled, we’re frustrated, we feel betrayed by the administration and the city, and we want people to understand what they’re up against when they’re signing up," Fitzgerald said.

FOX 13 News reached out to the Salt Lake City Fire Department to find out what normally happens in a case like this. They responded and said the case was in the hands of the city attorney’s office. FOX 13 then contacted the city to look for some answers, but they said they could not comment due to the ongoing woker's compensation claim.

“One of the most painful things about all of it is not being able to play with my kids,” said Fitzgerald. “I can’t play soccer with them even.”

Sarah has had to start working while being her husband’s caregiver.

“My body feels like it’s progressively getting worse, and Sarah deserves help. She’s been an incredible support and amazing strength through all this," Evan said.

They're hoping for some accountability and to make things right.

“The message should be: 'I've got your back, you’re going to be taken care of, and you’re worth something. We care that you got hurt, and we’ll help you through this,'”