Widow of New York City police officer Robert Helmke, who worked at Ground Zero from Sept. 13, 2001, until March 2002. He died July 28, 2007, of small bowel adenocarcinoma
Greta Helmke's husband Robert was always the man in uniform.
"He was always the man in blue, serving his country," Helmke said with a laugh. First he served with the Air Force right out of Maria Regina Diocesan High School in Uniondale, said Greta Helmke. Then he went to U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement, and finally the New York City Police Department.
Sept. 11, 2001, started out as a vacation day for the Helmkes. The couple had just started a weeklong visit with Greta Helmke's sister near Toronto when Robert Helmke shook his pregnant wife awake that morning.
"Vacation's over," he said. "I gotta go back."
Two days later, Helmke was at Ground Zero, where he worked at the morgue and the family center and guarded the perimeter for the next six to seven months. He ate there with the other responders, and he often slept there, next to others who fell asleep exhausted in their dust-covered uniforms.
Then he returned to his regular duties in the headquarters of the NYPD medical division, located at Lefrak City. But over the next two years, Greta Helmke said, he became slower. More tired. Every meal didn't seem to sit right. He stopped rollerblading with her, and lost 25 pounds.
They guessed Helmke's ailments were either related to his job or to the kind of fatigue that plagues all parents of toddlers. They had an 18-month-old Garrett, and daughter Amelia on the way.
"He said, 'I guess that's the way my life is,' " Greta Helmke remembered.
In March 2006, three weeks after the couple's son was diagnosed with autism, Robert Helmke got his own diagnosis: Stage four small bowel adenocarcinoma, a rare cancer, even rarer in a previously healthy man only 42 years old. It had already spread to his liver, abdomen and pancreas.
The next 16 months were a blur of hospital visits, surgeries,seemingly countless prescriptions, and a struggle to pay the bills, Greta Helmke remembered.
Meanwhile, her formerly strapping husband - exceptionally fit at 5 feet 9 inches tall and 180 pounds - steadily deteriorated. He died on July 28, 2007.
The basement in Greta Helmke's Hauppauge home is tastefully furnished. Wood cabinetry lines one wall, and the glass-covered shelves display the mementos of Robert Helmke's short life. His police hat. A folded flag. A Distinguished Service Medal he won posthumously for his work at Ground Zero. And a collage that Garrett, now 8, made with the help of his teacher. The pictures are of Robert Helmke with Garrett, with stickers of police hats and cars. He made it for Father's Day last year.
"Amelia doesn't remember as much as Garrett," Greta Helmke said. The girl was only 3 at the time of her father's death. "And I remember over the summer, she came up to me and she said, 'Mommy, I'm really upset.' I said, 'Why, what's wrong?' She said, 'Because I can't remember Daddy.' "
Robert Helmke never applied for Victim Compensation Fund money, and Greta Helmke said she doesn't plan to apply for assistance under the Zadroga Act. Helmke's death was classified as a line-of-duty death, entitling her to benefit from the Police Department. She would not disclose how much she receives, but said she's not looking for anything more.
"I think the people who are still here and still sick need it the most," she said. And Helmke said she believes that those who got some money at the beginning still deserve a second look.
"I know they were given money at the time. I don't think they knew how much sicker they were going to get," she said. "They need the money."