Billy Baker has served the people of Troup County for 35 years as a firefighter, police officer and most recently a deputy. That community is now coming to his aid.
Last month, he was diagnosed with stage 4 esophageal cancer, and the news only got worse. The 57-year-old’s most recent prognosis was that he had three months to live.
"Hopefully I can beat the odds," Baker told AJC.com. "If not, I have to accept what that means, but if they can study what's going on with me and help someone else, that's cool. I plan to fight as hard as I can."
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He said he has many inspirations to draw from to give him strength to fight, such as his career in law enforcement and his local community.
However, his biggest source of encouragement is his wife, who has been there before.
Delaying the honeymoon
On their wedding day in May 2016, Baker’s wife did not feel well. It wasn’t nerves.
“We didn’t have a honeymoon because she was sick the day we got married,” he said. “We just didn’t know what it was.”
Two weeks later, the newlyweds discovered what was making Misty Baker ill: a 17-pound malignant tumor in her ovaries.
She was diagnosed with stage 1 ovarian cancer. Baker said he used up most of his paid time off work to take care of his wife, and the support eventually paid off.
After chemotherapy and a double mastectomy due to a heightened risk of breast cancer, Misty Baker was declared cancer-free. Now, she’s approaching the two-year anniversary of her remission.
The couple enjoyed a reprieve by finally taking that vacation they never got around to after their marriage.
Baker said he and his wife took a camper to the beach. He still wishes to take her on “her dream honeymoon” someday.
The beach trip was in May. The reprieve would only last about one month.
One in 600
In June, Baker began to feel sick after conducting a traffic stop. He's had plenty of experience on the traffic beat, patrolling I-85 and I-185 as part of the sheriff's narcotics division.
It was hot outside, as Georgia in June often is, but the sickness lingered the next day, he said. By the time he went to the emergency room, his upper chest was hurting severely.
What doctors discovered in the X-ray brought him back to when he was newly married. Two cancerous masses were found, leading to the stage 4 esophageal cancer diagnosis.
“The majority of our marriage has been one of us dealing with cancer,” Baker said. “It’s an emotional beatdown.”
His surgeon told him there’s about 600 cases of esophageal cancer each year in Georgia. Given how developed the cancer is, his medical team has prepared an aggressive treatment plan that will possibly combine chemotherapy and targeted radiation.
Whether he’s in the hospital or in the couple’s Heard County home, Baker said his wife has been at his side every step of the way.
“For her to have been through everything she’s been through ... she’s been a trouper,” he said. “And that support is priceless.”
Baker has faith he’ll pull through the rigorous and demanding treatment, which includes chemotherapy every two weeks and radiation five days a week. His sheriff does, as well.
“We feel convinced that a miracle will happen, and God will intervene,” Sheriff James Woodruff, who hired Baker about four years ago, said. “He also understands that if it doesn’t, that he will meet it head-on.”
‘A service to others’
Baker hasn’t been able to recoup his paid time off work since using the majority of it to be with his wife, and it has come back to haunt him. His last paycheck came in this week, and he’s had to rely on his savings to help cover the cost of his mounting medical bills.
It will be five months before Baker can start drawing Social Security benefits because of how much money his wife makes working with UPS.
“I don’t think that’s right. It shouldn’t be that way,” he said. “I was given three months to live, so you want to approve it two months after I’m dead? It’s a worry you shouldn’t have to deal with when you’re battling a life-threatening disease.”
The Sheriff’s Office, the Blue Knights International Law Enforcement Motorcycle Club and Jackson Services in LaGrange have partnered to host a fundraiser for the Bakers on Aug. 10. It will feature a live auction, barbecue and a riding event with motorcycles, Jeeps and hot rods at the Elks Lodge off South Davis Road.
Within a three-day period, nearly 500 tickets were sold, Woodruff said. The Sheriff's Office also posted a request on Facebook for donated items to fill up the live action.
“His whole life has been a service to others ... It’s a testament to what a public servant he is,” Woodruff said. “The people of this community recognize that, which is why I think there was such a response to our request for help.”
Baker said he’s been blown away by the rush of support, adding that law enforcement officers from across the Southeast have been calling and asking to assist.
He also said he couldn’t have asked for a better profession to prepare him for life-or-death scenarios.
“(Being a deputy) made it easier for me to swallow this pill,” Baker said. “My job helped prepare me to have to fight this. I’m grateful for that.”
In lieu of a GoFundMe page, the Sheriff’s Office has set up a bank account for people to make donations to the “Billy Baker Fund,” which amassed about $500 in its first day. Anyone interested should call the Sheriff’s Office at 706-883-1616 or email Lt. Nathan Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“He is part of our family, and we are going to walk this journey with him,” Woodruff said.