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Uninsured engineer fights cancer

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Update: Yacht Eng. Erick Deforest died Sept. 2, 2011 at Hospice By the Sea in Boca Raton after a six-month battle with lung cancer.

Yacht Eng. Erick Deforest has cancer. Freelance for the past year, he was without insurance when he was diagnosed.

There is treatment for the steak-sized sarcoma in his right lung, but without insurance, the bills are formidable.

“Just the doctor visit today was $1,000 cash,” longtime friend Jenna Lombardi-Brown said in mid-March. “Every bit has to be prepaid. Every test, every doctor, the port, each chemotherapy visit.

“If untreated, he doesn’t have until summer,” she said, helping Deforest decipher medical reports in his living room in Ft. Lauderdale. “And I can’t imagine him not being here this summer.”

So Deforest’s friends are raising money with online auctions, classified ads and events to help cover medical expenses and to increase awareness on this issue of uninsured yacht crew.

Originally from Bridgeport, Conn., 45-year-old Deforest has been a yacht engineer since 2000. Previously, he had a mobile marine business in Sarasota since 1995, but got his first yacht job on the 1982 Benetti, M/Y Halleluja.

Grating lemons for a healthy beverage at home, Deforest reflected on the rest of his history working on motor yachts Sacajawea, Black Sheep, Allegria, Dreamseeker, Sea Ghost and One More Toy.

“I love the people,” he said. “I’ve made the best friends ever.”

But he also considered some of the toxins he has been exposed to as an engineer.

The doctors told Deforest that this type of cancer is not from smoking. Although his father died of lung cancer and genetics could be a factor, Deforest said he has worked with a lot of materials that may have played a part in the disease.

“We expect injuries in yachting, there are risks,” said Lombardi-Brown, owner of Lombardi Logistics, a yacht management company. “But we don’t always think of the health risks. An engineer’s daily responsibilities are dangerous. Even when they wear a mask or respirator, they’re still in contact with so much hazardous material.”

“I’ve been exposed to arsenic, copper, metal dust, asbestos, molds, you name it,” said Deforest, who also working in engine shops shoreside. “I’ve worked in industrial environments from nuclear to shipyards, even as a street sweeper near plants that had toxins.”

No matter the cause, it was near Christmas when Deforest noticed a pain in his chest.

“I figured I did something stupid while doing the refit on Chevy Toy, or when I was doing the A/C on Allegria,” Deforest said.

After seeing him in pain for long enough, his girlfriend, Alice Darley, made him go to a doctor.

“They did an x-ray and I saw it right away, a giant white mass,” Deforest said. “The doctor said you have to go to the emergency room, right now.”

That was Feb. 28.

“Next, I see a thoracic surgeon and the oncologist will determine what kind of sarcoma this is,” he said. “The only way to cure sarcoma is to remove it and all affected tissue. And a lot of tissue is affected, so we’ll try to reduce the size.”

Along with the lung, there is a lot of rib involvement. Deforest’s fifth rib on the right has disintegrated and he has another one that is fractured.

“His treatment will probably be either radiation or chemo to shrink the tumor, and then removal of the lung and eight ribs,” said Greta Blau, another longtime friend. “He will need financial, emotional and possibly physical help for the foreseeable future.”

Deforest said he had insurance on the last boat he worked on, but he let it lapse.

“I figured I’ll get it on the next boat,” he said. “But this isn’t Jones Act stuff; you’re on your own.”

Not every boat provides health insurance for its crew. As a yacht manager, Lombardi-Brown has researched the topic and said yachts are not obligated to have it. If they do, it usually doesn’t cover much, she said. It mostly reimburses.

If there’s one thing Deforest has learned is that yacht crew can’t depend on vessels to take care of them. They need to make sure they have health insurance, especially between boats.

So this is where his friends come into play.

“The girls started posting stuff on Facebook to help me and it’s a bit too fluffy for my tastes; ‘exceptionally talented marine engineer’ and all,” Deforest said. “I’m just a regular guy. I want to keep it real.”

Web sites have been set up at www.LombardiLogistics.com and www.MiddleAgedJock.com for information and donations.

So for now, while he deals with doctors and finances, Deforest said he watches a lot of comedy, especially lots of stand-up.

“I’ve got to keep laughing. We have the sickest humor, even making jokes at the doctor’s office,” he said of his pal Lombardi-Brown. “Jenna said if they remove all this and the ribs, the gap will make me the world’s largest beer opener. She wants to make wind chimes out of my leftover ribs.”

And Deforest tries to stay as healthy as he can in anticipation of chemotherapy treatments and getting through medical paperwork.

“But if I want to live, I have to do this,” Deforest said. ” I have to laugh or I’ll cry. And I don’t want to let my people down.

“As uncomfortable as I am with this, I don’t know how to respond to all the help,” he said. “I owe everyone a beer.”

Dorie Cox is associate editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at dorie@the-triton.com.

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