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Life after 9/11 responder's leukemia death

Patricia Rooney sits inside her Seaford home, where

Patricia Rooney sits inside her Seaford home, where a painting and photos of her late husband are displayed on her mantle. Philip Rooney, 41, died in 2007 of leukemia. He had been a first responder, working 400-500 hours at Ground Zero as a city carpenter. (July 7, 2011) Credit: Steve Pfost

It was in February 2004 that Philip Rooney of Seaford learned the diagnosis that would eventually take his life.

For some weeks, the then 38-year-old carpenter for the New York City Department of Transportation had been losing weight, had no appetite, was breathless and wanted to sleep all the time.

One night after playing a game of ice hockey, the formerly fit and athletic Rooney came home covered in bruises, although he hadn't been hit.

The next day, his doctor sent him to the emergency room at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, where he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.

AML, a cancer of the bone marrow, is rare in people under age 40, according to the National Institutes of Health. The median age at diagnosis is 67. Exposure to benzene, certain chemotherapy drugs or radiation increase the risk of the disease. The five-year survival rate is 22.6 percent.

Rooney believed he knew exactly why he had leukemia. At Ground Zero hours after the Twin Towers fell, he initially worked 12-hour shifts on the bucket brigade and then switched to working as support staff for several months, his wife said.

"He told every doctor he saw: 'I worked at 9/11,' " said his wife, Patricia, a nurse. "From day one, he believed it was related to 9/11. He said, 'I'm a healthy guy. My luck, I'm the one that gets it.' "

His hematologist-oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan suggested that could be the case as well. In a letter dated Oct. 13, 2005, Dr. Mark Heaney wrote: "The timing between the onset of the bone marrow disease . . . and his exposure to the toxins at Ground Zero raises the possibility that his leukemia may have been a result of this exposure."

Rooney died three years after his diagnosis, at age 42.

Patricia Rooney pays $800 a month for health insurance for the couple's three children, and another $800 for her own hospitalization insurance. Money from the newly reopened 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund -- which does not now cover treatment for cancer -- would help, she said.

It would be only what her brother and his family deserve, said Rooney's sister, Linda Rooney, who last year started a golf outing in her brother's name that helped raise funds for his children's tuition. This year's outing is Monday at Great Rock Golf Club in Wading River.

"This was an unprecedented event," Linda said of Sept. 11, 2001. "No one is looking to profit from it; people are just looking to get by."

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