Sparta, NJ – Two months after his son was born, AJ Pumilia came home with a headache.
“We’re not going to the doctor, we’re going to the hospital,” he told his wife.
That night, a CT scan revealed a large tumor, which was wrapped around his optical nerve.
AJ was born and raised in Sparta, and attended Sparta High School. When he came of age, he joined the Sparta Volunteer Fire Department, with the hopes of someday becoming a full-time paid firefighter in a big city. At age 24, he achieved his goal and moved to Washington, D.C., where he met and married his wife and started his family.
According to his father, Anthony Pumilia, “He was living his dream. But, only three years into it, his dream was shattered.”
Surgery last December left him in a coma. Family and friends watched anxiously day by day for any sign of recovery. Progress was extremely slow, first an arm movement, another day, eye movement, and one day, consciousness.
At a fundraiser held by the Sparta Volunteer Fire Department on Saturday, AJ’s Grandparents-In-Law stood in for the young couple.
“Jessica (AJ’s wife) wanted to be here today, but she didn’t want to leave AJ. He is not ready to make such a long trip,” said Jenny Crouse, Jessica’s best friend.
Wearing buttons that said “My Grandson is my Hero” and signs around their neck “AJ’s Grandparents-In-Law,” they explained some of the early turning points. "He slowly began to recognize people, to drink, to eat, and to move. We bought him a wooden cross to hold, which he would not let go of.”
To help out, they took the baby for over six weeks while Jessica tended to her husband.
“You’ve got to understand, he’s our great-grandson!” exclaimed Marie Lemmon.
Jessica Pumilia has been a devoted wife. At Christmas, his favorite holiday, she decorated the room with nutcrackers. She spends every day at the hospital, decorating his room for every holiday, and encouraging her husband through physical therapy by bringing their son.
“They’re both learning how to walk,” said Crouse.
A cherished moment was when AJ was able to give his son his bottle. The hospital encourages anything that will help AJ take even a tiny step toward his old life, including allowing his dog, Lugnut, into his hospital room.
“It’s going to be a very long, slow recovery,” said Dan Chervenak, “He’ll never be the same.”
Saturday’s event, a Barbeque & Tricky Tray, with live music donated to the cause by the Snake Oil Willie Band, and the Texas 1980 Band, was co-chaired by Sparta Firefighters Chervenak and Jim Castimore. Members of the Ladies Auxiliary sold entrance tickets at $30 for adults and $15 for children, as well as Tricky Tray and 50/50 tickets. Many local businesses and individuals donated money and upscale prizes, including a television, a grill, and many electronics.
Kristy Bodle, from the Ogdensburg Fire Department won an autographed poster of Eli Manning.
“We came out because it’s a great cause,” she said.
There were about 10 members of the Ogdensburg Fire Department present. Sparta had dozens. Other firefighters present were members from Byram, Andover Township, and Hopatcong.
Member Wade Crowley said, “I have my family here, we came to support his family.”
The younger generation also helped in a big way. “We passed out flyers at Sparta Day, and I’ve been pushing the event on Facebook,” said Sparta High School Freshman Heather Seugling.
Sparta Kiwanis managed the parking lot during the event, and members of the Blairstown Rotary Club were patrons.
“You don’t understand, when you put this on, you’re not just a member, you’re a brother,” said Chervenak, pointing to his uniform. “We’re just trying to give back a little to one of our own. They’ve [the supporters of the event] got to understand how really appreciative we are because the response has been fantastic.”
He estimated over 300 people attended, and even more sent donations.
Firefighters in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore have also provided support to AJ.
AJ’s father explained, “They take care of him, by their friendship, camaraderie, and keeping him positive.”
According to Jenny Crouse, Baltimore firefighters are renovating his house. They built a deck and ramp, and widened the doorway for his wheelchair.
“His co-workers covered his shifts and donated their time to enable him to continue to receive medical benefits for as long as possible,” said his dad.
Washington, D.C. firefighters receive a pension after five years, but this happened at four-and-a-half years. AJ now has no medical benefits, and owes an estimated $1,000,000 in bills.
AJ’s father, Anthony, explained, “I’d surely give up my life, which I would, what do I have to live for? My son has his future ahead of him. We are touched beyond words that these people would do this for my son. As a family, we’re devastated. I’m out of tears. I spent the afternoon thanking everybody here.”
Anyone who would like to keep track of AJ’s progress can log into Jessica’s blog at http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/anthonypumilia and type in an email address to enter the site.
Checks can be made payable to “Sparta Fire Department” memo: “for AJ,” and mail to P.O. Box 121, Sparta, NJ 07871, or go to any Bank of America, and make checks payable to “Benefit for AJ Pumilia.” For more information, email: benefit4AJ@yahoo.com.