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After saving his best friend’s life, Central Kentucky fireman fights brain cancer

·7 min read

When Bobby King’s foot “exploded” in a New Orleans hotel room in 2016, he had fellow Central Kentucky firefighter Allen Vann to thank for keeping him alive.

Now King is trying to return the favor after Vann came home from his honeymoon in Mexico to discover he had a tumor the size of a lime in his brain.

The two best friends had just arrived in New Orleans, where they planned to celebrate the Fourth of July that year, the pair said, describing the trip. King wasn’t long removed from having one of his big toes amputated after he suffered a blood infection. He contracted the infection after a shooting victim’s blood dripped into his shoe and got into a hangnail.

King thought he had fully recovered after the amputation, and he’d returned to work. But on the way to New Orleans, King suffered from flu symptoms, and his foot bothered him. He took off his boot when they got to their hotel and discovered his swollen foot had “exploded.” He had sepsis.

He was freaking out. Vann wasn’t. The two worked to bandage up King’s foot before Vann pulled out his phone and paid to get King on a flight back home as soon as possible.

Doctors had to amputate King’s leg below his knee. It forced him into a wheelchair. But at least he was alive.

“The doctors even said, ‘Hey, if you had waited any longer, we’d have probably ended up burying you,’” King said. “So Allen saved my life, and I’m trying to pay him back for that.”

King’s method for paying Vann back? To try to make sure Vann is “well taken care of” as he deals with thousands of dollars in uncovered medical expenses. King is hosting a barbecue competition and a motorcycle rally this weekend to ease the financial burden that accompanies cancer treatment.

King and Vann, both 39, met as fellow firefighters and EMTs in Madison County 20 years ago. They worked at several different Kentucky fire departments, but they’ve done everything together, King said.

“We’ve been best friends,” King said. “Brothers, even. I know his family inside and out, and he knows my family inside and out.”

Allen Vann, right, and his friend Bobby King have known each other for 20 years. King is trying to raise money to help Vann with medical bills after he was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year.
Allen Vann, right, and his friend Bobby King have known each other for 20 years. King is trying to raise money to help Vann with medical bills after he was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year.

Brain tumor found immediately after honeymoon

Vann married his wife, Leslie, in March, and the two honeymooned in Mexico. Allen said he had a good time, but severe headaches and some memory loss marred the trip. He took a lot of painkillers and struggled to remember how to spell basic words like “cave.”

Both of the Vanns had contracted COVID-19 previously and struggled with headaches after recovering, which can be a long-term effect of COVID-19. At first, his wife blamed the headaches on the virus. In the midst of getting married and closing on a new home, Allen Vann assumed his headaches were just “due to all the things that I had going on in my life at that point.”

But as the headaches persisted and spelling became an issue, the concern grew. Leslie told her husband to see a doctor. She was formerly a nursing assistant at Cardinal Hill Hospital in the brain injury unit, leaving her uniquely qualified in the relationship to realize something wasn’t right with her husband’s head.

“She knew that something was wrong with me way before I did,” Allen Vann said. “Honestly, I’m not one that likes to go to the doctor for things unless it’s an absolute emergency.”

They returned home from their vacation around midnight, Leslie said. Allen woke her up less than six hours later because his head hurt worse than it had in a long time. He hadn’t slept all night. They went to the emergency room. The staff at Saint Joseph found the tumor, and he was taken to the University of Kentucky Hospital.

“I mostly panicked at first because it looked real bad and I wasn’t sure if it was even going to be fixable by surgery,” Allen Vann said of his initial reaction to the tumor.

Allen said he felt better after additional tests and learning his treatment options.

“If it hadn’t been for her making me go to the hospital and get this checked out, I probably never would’ve,” he said. “Or when I did, it would’ve been too late and they wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it.”

King said that Leslie’s efforts to help his best friend made her “the real hero.”

“I don’t think I know a stronger woman, honestly,” he said. “She’s been by his side the entire time and has been a rock.”

Surgery was done at UK to remove the tumor. A massive semi-circle of stitches replaced the hair on the side of Allen’s head. King said Allen’s head looked like a tennis ball.

Allen Vann, a firefighter in Midway, Ky., had a cancerous tumor removed from his head earlier this year. The tumor was the size of a lime, Vann said.
Allen Vann, a firefighter in Midway, Ky., had a cancerous tumor removed from his head earlier this year. The tumor was the size of a lime, Vann said.

Most of the tumor was removed through surgery, Allen said. However, there are lingering cancer cells. He’s going through radiation and chemotherapy to treat them. His doctors have been encouraged by his recovery, he said. So has Leslie, who was able to return to work full time while Allen recovered.

“He was doing so well that he didn’t need me to be home with him,” she said. “This is a big surgery and it can be pretty life-changing ... You wouldn’t know that he had all of this going on.”

Allen went back to his full-time job at Jim Beam last week. He’s a full-time mechanical specialist and works as an on-call captain for Midway’s volunteer fire department.

‘We’re going to carry on with life’

The cost of Allen’s treatment has gotten “up in the several hundred thousand dollars, and that’s not counting the surgery,” he said. Insurance covers a lot of that expense, he said, but the newlyweds are dealing with several thousand dollars worth of uncovered expenses. They’re not sure yet how much they’ll have to pay out of pocket for the surgery.

While they didn’t expect anyone to go out of their way to lend a hand, they’ve been grateful for King’s efforts and family members, who have tried to help with chores and errands.

“We’re really good about saving money, so we had a decent emergency fund, which was really helpful when he had to take off the full 12 weeks for work,” Leslie said. “That was helpful, and then his family’s been great about doing things to help us.”

Leslie and Allen were in the process of closing on their new home when they found out he had the tumor.

“I remember being in the ER and we were about to decide on closing on this current house that we bought. And I was like ‘I’m pretty sure if you don’t want to do this, this will get us out of the contract,’” Leslie said. “And he was like ‘no, we’re going to do this. We’re going to carry on with life.’”

‘I could not be consoled’

King’s mom died from cancer, so he already knew how much financial and emotional strain cancer can cause.

“Whenever I found out that there was a good chance I might lose my friend, I was just devastated,” he said. “I started crying ... I could not be consoled.”

His efforts to help his best friend will include two of Vann’s favorite things: eating and motorcycles.

The motorcycle rally and barbecue competition are scheduled for Saturday at 12 p.m. at Walter Bradley Park in Midway. The fees are $35 for an individual competing in the barbecue competition and $60 for a group. King said he’s also offering concessions and tables for people who want to promote their businesses. All proceeds will go to Vann.

Additionally, a GoFundMe page has been set up with a fundraising goal of $25,000.

“The entire city is coming to rally around Allen,” King said of Midway.

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