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Don’t Ignore the Warning Signs: A Chief’s Personal Experience with Cardiovascular Disease

As fire service professionals we are all acutely aware of the dangers in our profession. Most of us understand that cardiac-related events are the leading cause of fireground deaths. We know that the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1582 standard outlines the components necessary for a proper fitness for duty physical. We know that researchers are constantly making recommendations to keep us safer and healthier. Despite knowing all of this, I think most of us have it in the back of our minds that the “bad things” are going to happen to someone else. At least I certainly did.

I believe in the efforts and ideas put forth by the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ (IAFC) Safety, Health and Survival Section. I believe in NFPA 1582. I believe the research that has been done on firefighter health and fitness injuries and deaths and what recommendations come out of that research. I believe we all owe it to ourselves, our families, and our organizations to remain fit for duty and beyond. I worked with our labor group to bring in NFPA 1582 physicals. I brought in dietitians and fitness experts and successfully wrote grants for state-of-the-art exercise equipment. I worked hard to practice what I preached by exercising multiple times a week, being careful with my diet, keeping alcohol consumption in check, and I do not smoke. With no family history of cardiovascular disease, I thought I was doing everything I could to stave off a cardiac event. The one thing I wasn’t properly managing was stress.

In December, I completed the requirements for a doctorate in business administration with a leadership focus. The final leg of this arduous, and stressful journey involved final edits for my doctoral study titled “Combating firefighter line of duty injuries”. In an ironic twist, I made the final edits for my doctoral study from a hospital bed while awaiting triple bypass surgery. Earlier that week I finally went to the emergency room to appease my wife after ignoring my primary care physician. After an initial consultation with the emergency room doctor, I was admitted as a patient, despite feeling fine. The next day I was scheduled for cardiac catheterization. I told the doctor conducting the procedure I just needed to be okay to attend my daughter’s graduation as a physician’s assistant the next day. Within five minutes she informed me I would not be attending graduation and that I would need bypass surgery. It turned out I had three blockages, the most serious was a 90% blockage of my left coronary artery. Two days later they performed the bypass surgery.

Despite doing extensive research on firefighter injuries and deaths, including those associated with cardiovascular disease, I attributed warning signs to another injury and Father Time for months. I rationalized my behavior as sound reasoning because I had taken multiple stress tests, had ultrasounds and full physicals almost annually since 2016 with no problems. In fact, I had taken an NFPA 1582 physical and a physical from my primary care physician in March! On top of that, I typically ate healthily, exercised regularly, and had no family history. My cardiovascular disease became problematic in a matter of months. I was the poster child for the “If You Don’t Feel Well, Don’t Make it Your Farewell” campaign, an initiative launched by former IAFC President Gary Ludwig. Yet I ignored it. Sitting in the hospital for 10 days forced me to contemplate my condition and how it happened. The only major risk factor I couldn’t account for was stress. I began to realize I needed to work on reducing stress in both my personal and professional life. I am now working to more quickly identify situations that are or may become stressful to better deal with them.

It is never too early to adopt a healthy lifestyle and work to reduce stress. I believe we should all examine our behaviors as well to see if we not only add to our stress but if we add to others. I urge people to find successful strategies to deal with the stresses they encounter daily. I will continue to advocate for NFPA-compliant physicals for all firefighters, but at the end of the day it comes down to personal responsibility for one’s health. If your doctor gives you advice or advocates a plan of action, please listen to them. I proved with my own misdiagnosis that firefighters are not more qualified than physicians.

I was lucky because my problem was found and corrected before I had an event. Had I not listened to my wife and primary care physician, the outcome would most likely have been very different. Because I was overall healthy before this occurred, the doctors expect a full recovery with no future restrictions, and I am considered ahead of schedule with my cardiac rehabilitation.

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