CALAIS, Maine — There was a deep sense of sadness Saturday as the community grappled with news that one of its young firefighters had lost his battle with leukemia.
Billy Townsend, 27, began his career as a junior firefighter while he was still in his teens. Except for a brief stint as a firefighter in Lincoln, he spent the rest of his career shoulder to shoulder with his fellow Calais firefighters battling some of the city’s largest fires.
On Friday, Townsend, who faced his illness with the same determination he had when staring down a fire, lost his battle with cancer and died.
“We are shocked,” a subdued Capt. Dale Purton of the Calais Fire Department said Saturday. “We knew what could be the outcome and it certainly didn’t go the way we hoped, but we lost a really good man.”
Townsend started with the department when he was 14. “He hasn’t been real active in the last two years because he has been sick, but he has always had a presence here,” the captain said.
“He’ll never be replaced,” Purton said. “Other people will come along as they do with anything, but he leaves a big gap.”
Calais Fire Chief Danny Carlow said there was a sense of grief among members of the Fire Department. “We know he’s been very ill for a few days,” he said. “It’s still a shock.”
On March 14, 2007, Townsend was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia, a type of blood cancer. At the time, the family believed he was in remission, but that fall the disease struck his body again. He went through a series of radiation treatments. The disease was in remission until early 2008. He underwent further treat-ment, and the disease went back into remission last year.
In the meantime, the family was told Townsend was being put on the registry for a bone marrow transplant, for which he would need a marrow donor.
In the beginning, the family’s hopes were high, given that the registry lists more than 5 million possible donors. They thought a match would be found easily.
That didn’t happen.
At one point, Townsend was told a match had been found, but it turned out to be a disappointment.
That’s when the family decided to look for a match in their own backyard. They persuaded the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, a member of the National Marrow Donor Program, to send a team to Calais in May 2008 to hold a bone marrow drive. More than 400 people volunteered.
Again, no match was found.
Finally, the call came in January: A match had been found. Townsend and his wife, Alicia, were upbeat.
Then the family faced another setback when Townsend got a viral bladder infection.
“It started in his bladder and then he got other viruses in his blood,” Alicia Townsend said.
He traveled to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and on March 10 underwent the procedure.
“It seemed like after he got his transplant and the first two weeks he seemed to be doing pretty well,” his wife said.
He retained his sense of humor. “He liked to give the nurses a hard time to just get some laughing going on,” Alicia Townsend said.
Then things began to go bad.
Townsend was in the hospital for more than 50 days
His health continued to deteriorate and on Friday, Townsend’s battle with cancer ended.
Townsend leaves behind his wife, a son and a daughter.
Funeral arrangements were still pending Sunday.