Throughout her remarkable career of public service, Linda Long knew where she needed to go and what it would take to get there.
As a 39-year-old Philadelphia paramedic captain, Linda was approaching a big promotion when she dared to make good on her childhood dream: becoming a city firefighter.
“I caught the bug in kindergarten when we visited the Engine 64 firehouse,” she said. “There were a lot of fires in Philly in the ’70s, and we saw some. I remember watching one across the street from the lawn of the high school. It was something of a path marker.”
In crossing over from Emergency Services to the Fire Department, Linda accepted a salary half of what she’d been making and endured a rigorous fire academy with fellow trainees who were often a decade or two younger.
“God bless her,” says Paul Buchanan, a fellow city firefighter and one of Linda’s firehouse mentors. “I sure wouldn’t have done it.”
Some firefighters, Linda says, think they have it all figured out once they’ve completed the academy. Not her. She went to work at a firehouse where she could be around other inquisitive firefighters like Paul. Linda studied building construction and memorized the street grid of the district her local firehouse covered. “Learning your local” can save precious seconds — when a fire call came in, she knew the best and second-best routes to get there in a 500-gallon engine truck, and she knew where to find the closest hydrant.
Along the way, Linda became an instructor, and more than that, a leader. She advocated for a chaplain program and other services to help firefighters cope with the psychological traumas endemic to the job. She mentored some of the other women in the predominantly male department.
Jen Leary arrived at the fire academy in shape but uncertain she could master some of the strength-related exercises. Linda agreed to work with her and another female trainee first thing in the morning before classes began.
“Linda didn’t think I was eating enough, so she always brought me doughnuts,” Jen said. “She was our momma hen, and it was nice to have someone like that. The academy is intimidating. She looked out for me, and she has ever since.”
Linda’s hard work, determination and leadership skills paid off. In 2017, she became the first female battalion chief in department history.
Two years after her promotion, Linda joined more than 100 of her colleagues in responding to a series of explosions at a gasoline refinery complex. They spent more than 24 hours quelling the blaze, and Linda fought a cough and other lung issues for the next year. When she started to experience unusual fatigue, dizziness and headaches, she figured it was related.
But the dizziness persisted, puzzling her primary care doctor. She turned to an ear, nose and throat team at Penn Medicine. A specialist there was stumped, too, and referred her for an MRI. Linda was on the way home from the scan when her phone rang. She had a brain tumor and needed surgery as soon as possible. She was stunned.
Over the next six weeks, Linda underwent two surgeries so the Penn Medicine neuro-oncology team could resect her tumor. She was diagnosed with glioblastoma (GBM) and learned that she may have just six months to live.
For Linda, the route forward was no longer so clear. For weeks following surgery and while on medication, she felt dazed and disoriented. She couldn’t find the right words and struggled to focus. She asked her significant other, Kirk Cumberbatch, to help get her affairs in order.
Kirk had met Linda five years earlier. He appreciated how naturally they had fallen into rich, deep conversation on long walks near Linda’s home. He admired her poise, curiosity and quick wit.
When she got sick, Kirk urged Linda to reject the bleak prognosis. Do not put an expiration date on your life, he said.
Her firefighter and paramedic friends also came to her aid, offering both moral and practical support. Linda began chemotherapy treatment at Penn, but she no longer could drive, and Kirk works more than an hour away from their home. Jen spread the word and asked for help transporting Linda to and from the medical center, approximately 30 minutes from her home.
About two dozen colleagues volunteered, and Jen coordinated a schedule in a spreadsheet. Each day, she’d text or call the volunteer of the day with a reminder.
Other firefighters and paramedics started paying Linda home visits. It became common to see a fire truck pull up to her Northwest Philly house.
“People are so busy these days, but you’ve got to look at the whole picture,” Paul said. “This is her brain we’re talking about. What’s a few hours of our time?”
Linda was touched, and a little astonished. At the end of every 90-minute treatment, she’d return to the waiting room and find someone still there for her.
“I knew I had a lot of friends, but I didn’t realize how much they really, really cared,” she said.
She also appreciates Kirk, who took care of her shopping and made all her favorite meals. Since Linda started Novocure’s therapy, Kirk has served as her primary caregiver, always there to help when it’s time to replace her transducer arrays.
He was overjoyed to see Linda regain her stamina and resolve with each passing month.
“I love her spirit and mostly like her approach of aggressively trying to get healthier,” he said. “Sometimes it’s ‘boom, boom, boom, crash,’ which can be a little alarming. But that’s her personality.”
Most days, Linda goes for walks in a city park near her neighborhood. She keeps an eye out for distinctive-looking metal, stones and glass shards. In her basement workshop, she crafts bracelets, rings and other artwork out of the found objects. It’s a hobby that has brought her a sense of peace before and since her diagnosis.
She also serves on the National Advisory Council of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which explores ways to prevent, prepare for and respond to natural disasters, national emergencies and hazardous materials accidents, among other situations.
In 2022, she participated in the National Brain Tumor Society’s Race for Hope in Philadelphia. A team of Philadelphia Fire Department members raised $20,000 to raise awareness and funds to help brain tumor patients and their families.
The support reflects the impact Linda has had on so many of her colleagues over the years, Jen said.
“People still constantly ask me, ‘How’s Linda? Can I do anything?’” Jen told her on a recent visit. “But you’re doing pretty good now.”
“Yeah, I think I am,” Linda said.
The health status of patients featured reflects their condition at the time the story was written and photographs were taken and may have changed over time.