Gary Tilton
Courtesy of Tilton family
Gary Tilton, fire chief in Katy, Texas, died of a heart attack on Oct. 20, 2004.
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Special to msnbc.com
updated 3/21/2007 5:52:12 PM ET 2007-03-21T21:52:12

Jo Ann Tilton is the widow of Katy, Texas, Fire Chief Gary Tilton, who died of a heart attack on Oct. 20, 2004, after directing traffic at the scene of a traffic accident. This is her account of her efforts to qualify for line-of-duty benefits promised under the Hometown Heroes Act of 2003.

My husband was Chief Gary Tilton and he died of a heart attack shortly after returning home from the scene of a traffic accident in October of 2004. We filed the claim for the Public Safety Officers benefits in January of 2005. To this date, I am still waiting for the claim to be processed.

Let me give you a little background. Approximately one half of the 100 firefighters who die in the line of duty each year die from a cardiac event. Because of this fact, the Hometown Heroes Act was passed and signed into law in December of 2003. The regulations were finally written and put into effect on September 11, 2006. Silly me, I thought the Department of Justice would then begin to process the claims. But, I was wrong. Well, maybe not totally wrong. They will tell you that they did begin the claim process at that point. But what they really began was a long road of delays and excuses. When this claim was filed I was told that it would take up to a year to process. I never dreamed that over two years after the claim was filed I would still be waiting for the claim to be processed. My claim has not been denied. I have not even gotten that far!!

My husband was a firefighter for 31 years and at the time of his death he was living his dream of being the chief of the Katy, Texas, Fire Department. The day of his death was a normal day spent at the fire station. That evening he was called out of church to a car accident at a very bad intersection in our area. While working the scene of the accident he began to have discomfort and had to sit down. He came home shortly after that. He was hot, sweaty, and tired. I really didn't think much about it. After all, that is the way he looked many times after being on a scene of a fire or accident. He went in to take a shower and collapsed in the shower and died. In an instant, my life was changed.

Support from firefighter family
There are no words to describe the support I have felt from the firefighter family. The National Fallen Firefighter Foundation is an unbelievable organization which is always there for us survivors. My husband used to talk about how he could go into any fire station across America and feel at home. I am so honored and proud that I can say that I understand what he meant. I know I could go anywhere and the firefighters would be there for me.

I wish I could say the same for my government. Somehow I just feel certain that those senators and representatives who sponsored the Hometown Heroes Act would proudly list this bill as one of their accomplishments. They would be more than happy to boast how they had given the firefighter families needed benefits. I doubt seriously that they would go on to tell how not one claim has been processed under this law and, to date, no firefighter family has received a penny of benefits under this law!

I can tell you the facts of my husband's death. I can tell you the facts about filing this claim. What I cannot tell you, because there is no way to truly convey my feelings, is the emotional pain that I go through in dealing with this situation. It is such an emotional drain just to pick up that phone to call that my calls have been limited. I have to be in the right frame of mind before I can even think about calling. Then when I do call, I really hope that no one answers and I can just leave a message. Every phone call is a very painful reminder that my husband is no longer here. Because I was told in the beginning that this claim would probably take a year, I did not begin keeping notes of my conversations with the Dept. of Justice until March of 2006.

On March 21, 2006, I made my first call to inquire about the status of my husband's claim. At that time I was told that the final regulations had not been written, but they hoped to have them by late Spring or early Summer.

Questions, but no answers
My next call was on 6-21-06 when I was told that claims were still not being processed and they were looking at August as the target date for the regulations to be written.

On 8-9-06 I was told that claims are still not being processed and they did not know when the regulations would be written.

On 10-2-06 I left a message requesting the status of the claim.

On 10-6-06 I was left a message telling me they had contacted Katy Fire Dept requesting information.

On 10-10-06 I left a message requesting status of the claim.

On 10-11-06 I received a call from the DOJ explaining the information they needed from the fire dept. along with 10 years of medical records.

On 10-23-06 I Fed Exed the fire dept. information along with about 20 years of medical records to the DOJ.

On 11-10-06 I left a message requesting status of the claim.

On 11-17-06 I received a call from the DOJ. The claim specialist stated that she had received the packet of information from me but that my husband's claim had not been sent for medical review.

Awaiting medical review
Later that day I called back and left a message asking when my husband's claim would be sent for medical review. I never received a call back for that message.

On 1-11-07 I left a message requesting status of the claim.

I left messages on 1-23-07, 1-29-07, and 1-30-07 requesting status of the claim.

I received a call back on 1-30-07 stating that the Department of Justice had just completed writing "procedures" for processing these claims. I was told that my husband's claim should be summarized by that Friday, February 2, 2007.

My last call to the DOJ was on 3-6-07. At that time I was told that there are several levels of review. I was told that the summary has been written and the claim is being reviewed by "us" (DOJ?). Next it will go to the physician's group. Once they review it, it will come back to "us" to be reviewed again! When I asked what happened after that she said that she doesn't know because no claim has gotten that far!!

As painful as it is, I will not give up the fight. I cannot imagine how many survivors just give up because they don't know how to fight or they simply don't have the emotional stamina to stick with it. This is a prime example of promises not kept. I am sure our lawmakers would not feel that way because they would quickly tell you how they passed the Hometown Heroes Act. But after the law is passed, no one follows through and sees that the benefits are paid.

I am only one of hundreds waiting for these claims to be processed. My husband has been honored as a hero across this nation. I can only hope that one day I will see the Department of Justice give him the honor that he deserves.

10 years of medical records
The DOJ asked for 10 years of medical records. They wanted any medical records for the 10 years prior to the death. I provided about 20 years. I had it ready to go because I had gotten it when I had to fight the state of Texas for my benefits. I won that case and Texas does not have a presumption like the Hometown Heroes Act does.

My husband was 58 at the time of his death. He had been treated for heart problems (rapid heart beat) within the year before he died. He had been treated for high blood pressure in the past and his medical records said he had taken medication for high cholesterol although I was never aware of a problem. He was not taking either of those medications at the time of his death. And, yes, he was overweight. Yes, he was at risk for a heart attack.

Would he have had a heart attack on October 20, 2004 if he had not been in the Texas humidity directing traffic (moving the arms to direct traffic causes an aerobic type stress on the heart)? Would he have an attack at that time if he had not have had the adrenaline rush that comes with any fire call? No one knows the answer to that question, but our doctor will tell you the answer is probably not. There were no indications that he was having any type of problem that day. Now, when you ask about my husband's general health, I have to tell you that he had had surgery two months prior to his death for colon cancer. He was undergoing chemo at the time of his death. Before you say, "Oh my, no wonder he had a heart attack", I will tell you that he was doing great with the chemo. His blood work was all normal (which is not always the case with chemo). I have a detailed deposition from our doctor describing my husband's health. Several times the doctor has stated that the chemo did not contribute to his attack. He was a high risk individual because of his weight.

This is one of the things that makes this ordeal so hard. It is considered a line of duty death, but there are people out there who would say that he would have had a heart attack no matter what the circumstances. I have come to grips with those folks by knowing that my husband lived as a hero and he is being honored for that life. Yes, he may have had a heart attack one day, but I am convinced that it would not have necessarily been that day.

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