San Diego Fire-Rescue Deputy Chief Lorraine Hutchinson is Komen’s 2014 ‘Honorary Breast Cancer Survivor’
By Monica Medina | Uptown News
Lorraine Hutchinson was born to be a firefighter. Standing at almost five feet nine inches tall, she’s got the grit and no-nonsense sensibility to get the job done. Add to that, a cool demeanor and a passion for helping people, and she’s a regular Johnny-on-the-spot.
The South Carolina native, who moved to San Diego fresh out of high school, didn’t start out to be a firefighter. It wasn’t even on her horizon. Hutchinson was a medical assistant at San Diego State’s health center. While there, someone noticed how calm and reassuring she was during moments of crises, and encouraged her to consider the profession.
For Hutchinson, having never seen a female firefighter in action, the idea seemed implausible. Yet once she learned more about the nature of the job and what it took to become one, she was all in.
“My original goal was to be a nurse because I’ve always wanted to be in the medical field,” she explained. “Not many know, though, that as firefighters what we do is 85 percent medical. There are 47 engine companies in the city and there are much less than that in ambulances, so we usually get there first. I quickly knew this was the job for me. I get to do medical work that I love and also deal with emergencies.”
That was 28 years ago and today, at 49, Hutchinson is Deputy Chief in the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, Station 14 in North Park. Despite challenges along the way, Hutchinson, who is one of four female chiefs and the highest ranking among them, has made it in what has been traditionally a man’s world.
“When I came on, things were a lot different than they are now,” she observed. “There was an old school way of thinking. There were guys still on the job who felt that this was a man’s job. Things have evolved since then, and the department doesn’t tolerate such thinking.”
Being a fire fighter is physically demanding work, particularly so for women who, like their male counterparts, must drag water hoses and lift heavy ladders.
“Women tend to have less upper body strength than men,” Hutchinson noted. “We have to work on that and compensate in other ways. We also put stresses on ourselves, but I can’t say it’s a bad thing. It’s kept me on my feet my whole career. I am where I am today because I don’t relax or become complacent. I feel I have to be at the top of my game, and that’s how I got to where I got.”
In 2012, being at the top of her game became a challenge when Hutchinson was hit with a double-whammy. First she was diagnosed with diabetes. Soon after, she was called in for a follow-up to a routine mammogram. Only, she didn’t go at first.
Already on a special diet to lose weight because of the diabetes, and with a lot on her mind due to work and other activities, she figured the follow-up visit could wait. After all, her doctor’s office did say it was “nothing to worry about.”
“I was working and going to National University to get my degree,” she explained. “I was really busy and if I didn’t have all that going on in my life, I would’ve gone back sooner. I also had a belief that nothing could be wrong with me since I didn’t have a family history of breast cancer.”
When her schedule eased a bit, she decided it was time for that follow-up.
“It was several months later,” she recalled, “and that’s all I’m saying. If I had a chance to do it differently, I definitely would.”
At the time, Hutchinson didn’t realize that breast cancer is the most common cancer among African American women. According to Susan G. Komen San Diego, which recently named Hutchinson the 2014 Honorary Breast Cancer Survivor, while incidence rates are lower than they are for white women, mortality rates among African American women are 41 percent higher.
When the results came in that Hutchinson had breast cancer, her firefighter instincts kicked in. Only this time, instead of helping others, she’d be helping herself beat the odds.
“It would’ve been very easy for me to lay around and be depressed,” she said, “but I knew at the end of the treatment, I wanted to be better physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, so I had to take steps to do that. Every day during chemo I walked. I pushed myself, and remember walking down a hill and then trying to walk back, but I couldn’t. I had to call someone to come get me. So I started walking just around my house. Walking helped me get back my strength.”
For Hutchinson, having a mastectomy was a no-brainer.
“I could keep my breast and die or I could have a mastectomy,” she surmised. “No second thoughts. I really liked having my breasts but it did not weigh into my decision as to whether I was going to have a mastectomy. Not even close.”
In explaining why Susan G. Komen San Diego chose to honor Hutchinson, Executive Director Laura Farmer Sherman stated, “Lorraine is so deserving of this honor because her story encompasses the story we are working to convey. We need to rewrite the African American woman’s story about breast cancer and Lorraine is going to help lead the way there.”
Through it all, Hutchinson has had the support of friends, family and colleagues, including her husband, Steve Hutchinson, her daughter, two stepdaughters and a granddaughter. But there’s one in particular, whose guidance and encouragement has meant the world. Lorenza “Choker” Carter, her father. Her eyes teared thinking of him, and how he endured a life of hardships, including growing up in an abusive environment.
“My father inspires me,” she confided. “He’s been a role model for me and has taught me so many things. He came out here at 16 with his clothes in a paper bag, and then had this amazing career in the Navy with 17 promotions, retiring as a lieutenant commander. That’s where I got my drive to rise through the ranks. When I told him I wanted to do this job, he never questioned it. All he did was support me and let me be me. Even when he found out I have cancer, he was very sad. He told me I’d get through it. He is my number one fan, besides my husband.”
Thanks to a rigorous regimen of walking 20,000 steps every day, mostly on steep hills along Florida and Upas streets by Morley Field, she is now diabetes and cancer free.
“I hope to inspire people with my story,” she said. “Last year at this time I had just finished my last chemotherapy treatment. I feel good to be back at work. I needed to get back to something normal, back to helping folks and having people need my help.
“Whatever your challenges are, make it a positive experience. Nobody wants to have cancer but if you can be better than you were, I just see it as a blessing. The fact that I get to help people and share my story and hopefully save lives, that’s a bonus.”