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After 28-year Career as Helper, Former Newport Firefighter Needs Help after Surgery

Former Newport Firefighter Joseph Barbarow has fallen on ill health and bills for a prosthetic leg after a recent amputation are piling up.

Joseph Barbarow, a former Newport firefighter, in earlier days.
Joseph Barbarow, a former Newport firefighter, in earlier days.

Joseph F. Barbarow has never been one to ask for help.

He retired from a 28-year career as a member of the Newport Fire Department in 2003. He’s used to being the one doing the helping.

“He looked like a big gruff fireman,” his daughter Kathi Marks said. “Anyone that knows him knows he’d give his last five cents, his shirt off his back to help someone.”

His nickname was Joe Vinnie and he liked working the rescue. Unlike some departments, Newport doesn’t stick a firefighter on one apparatus forever. They rotate.

He responded to fires, gave people CPR, put his life at risk for anyone at the drop of a hat. He responded to motorcycle accidents and helped bring people to the hospital with nearly severed-extremities still attached. He’s been there when babies are born, when babies stop breathing and “it’s tough, you know, you’re working on the baby and also looking at the parents,” he said in an interview.

Today, he lives in Maine with his wife, daughter and three grandchildren in Bucksport, close to Bangor. He always said when he retired he’d move because Newport wasn’t affordable on a retiree’s salary. Diabetes took his foot some time ago. Last year, it took the rest of his leg.

Now Barbarow is working on getting used to a new prosthetic leg. And he’s facing crippling hospital bills that are adding to upwards of $20,000 — money that he said he can’t just pull out of a hat.

Marks said her father can’t drive anymore and has a lot of medical appointments. When it comes to installing an accessibility ramp, they don’t even know where to begin.

 “This was his dream,” Marks said of his life in rural Maine. “He doesn’t want to leave here, we don’t want to put him in assisted living. This would kill him.”

Marks set up a page at www.gofundme.com in the hopes that some of the people who knew or were helped by her father during his career in Newport might lend a hand.

She said asking for money is a humbling, if not humiliating experience, especially for a proud man that is used to carrying a burden for others.

“I feel helpless,” Marks said. “Like no matter what I do — I seem to be banging my head against a wall.”

Marks has great memories of her dad in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Of visiting the fire station as a little girl and sliding down the pole.

“You’d go through downtown and I’d hear: ‘you’re Vinnie’s daughter — Joe Vinnie’s daughter!” she said.

Early on his career, Joe Vinnie’s endurance for the toughness of the job was tested. He remembers working at the former Newport Jai Alal when a call came in from his wife— his father had collapsed on the floor.

“He lived in Middletown at the time so I told the manager I have to leave,” he said.

At the house his father had a major heart attack and responders were trying to do CPR. He got in the back of the wagon and started giving CPR himself.

He didn’t make it.

“That’s not the way to start your career.”

Of everything he did working for the Newport Fire Department, Barbarow said he loved working the rescue most of all. When he was first hired, the chief asked him what he liked to do .

“I said you can put me on the rescue for my entire career,” he said.

He did 28 years and “for the most part, I had a good time,” he said. He spent his last three years as a dispatcher after a leg injury — the same leg that has since been amputated. He said he was good at it.

“The dispatcher is your first contact with the Fire Department,” he said, nothing he’s read accounts on the Internet from people who say they’ve had bad experiences with dispatchers — something that “puts a bad taste in my mouth.”

Barbarow said when he was in the hospital and in physical therapy, he was assured that the prosthetic leg would be fully covered. And he was used to the benefits he got as a pensioner who worked for the city.

But when he turned 65, he switched to Medicare. Along with that came changes to his contributions, which have increased substantially.

“I told them unless they picked up the whole total, I couldn’t afford the leg,” he said. “They told me they’d call Blue Cross and get the OK for it.”

He got the leg but now he’s finding there’s a 20 percent deductible. The bills for physical therapy, the prosthetic and everything else are rolling in.

Still, Barbarow would tell you there are people more deserving than he is. Deep down, he doesn’t want your charity.

In Maine, he lives in town with a volunteer department, but the Bangor is the next town over and they have a paid fire department.

“Sometimes when I see the trucks go out and hear the sirens, sometimes I wish I was still there,” he said.

For more information and updates, visit http://www.gofundme.com/joevinnie 

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