While heroic firefighters lose their lives each year attempting the rescue of those trapped, many more of us lose our lives due to heart attacks and related medical emergencies. This month, a fire captain in Michigan responds, like any of us do regularly, to a house fire, but this time, the...
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This story actually began years ago, when I refused to eat the vegetables my mother put on my plate at dinnertime. I never changed my ways. I always thought the four main food groups were pizza, eggs, steak and hamburgers. Working on an ambulance, most of my meals were eaten while driving or in such a hurry I couldn't even taste it if I wanted to. Anyone who works in emergency services knows that when food comes through the vehicle window or is put on the table, you eat it now because you might not get a chance again. That and the lack of quality exercise lead to a recent diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes.
Because of this, I had started to change my ways, though not soon enough. I had the risk factors - my mother died at age 62 from a heart attack and several relatives on both sides of my family died too soon from heart disease; I had chronic high blood pressure, a lack of exercise, a poor diet and stress. The only major factor I don't have is smoking. I have never smoked, but I spent my childhood around secondhand cigarette smoke and most of my adulthood working on engines or smelling the exhaust and, of course, the gases associated with firefighting.
I have seen the way my heart attack has affected other people. How my chief and fellow firefighters and the medical people had to continue doing their jobs knowing one of their own was in trouble. How their wives, husbands, sons and daughters have taken more of an interest in what their firefighting loved ones eat and what exercise they get. How my wife has to spend extra time food shopping because of reading nutrition labels and too much more to mention.
The financial costs are still adding up. It has cost my department's insurance company over $30,000 in medical bills (there was no hesitation by the department or the insurance company in declaring this a line-of-duty injury), added to the cost to my full-time employer to fill my shifts and pay me for sick and vacation time that I won't have for future use.
Some positive results: the members of my department have started a campaign to gather exercise equipment from basements, garages and storage sheds to set up a fitness area in our station. The chief's daughter has started the groundwork to set up a countywide contest among departments patterned after the TV show "The Biggest Loser." We are working with our dispatch to make an ALS ambulance part of the automatic structure fire response.
Because of the expert and timely care I received, I intend to return to full duty by the end of July and to grow old with my wife and see my daughter grow up. With my new outlook on life, my jobs, and the health and safety of me and my brothers and sisters in the fire-EMS service, I intend to do whatever I need to ensure that next time and every time everyone goes home. My thanks to Fire Chief Jack White; Oceana County EMS Director Lance Corey; Crystal Clevenger, EMT-P; Kay Abeig, EMT-S; the entire staff of Oceana County EMS; the officers and members of Shelby-Benona Fire Department; the staff of the Lakeshore campus of Mercy Health Partners Emergency Room; and, of course, my wife, Mary, and my daughter, Katelyn.
Eric Bergman comments:
These comments are based on my research of current medical studies. Firefighters have one of the highest deaths rates from cardiovascular disease than any other occupation. Nearly half of all line-of-duty deaths are due to heart attacks annually and are the number-one cause of on-duty deaths in firefighters each year.
Firefighters have the greatest chance of having a heart attack during structural firefighting operations. This is most likely due to the intense physical demands of structural firefighting. Anyone who has put on bunker gear with self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and performed interior operations at a structure fire knows how physically demanding firefighting is. Firefighters have a higher risk of having a fatal heart attack on the job than the rest of the public, probably due to this stress on the cardiovascular system.
Major cardiac risk factors increase the risk of having a heart attack. In firefighters, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, age greater than 45 and smoking increase the risk of having a heart attack. Age alone increases the risk of having a heart attack, but having other cardiac risk factors over this age significantly increases the risk of having a heart attack. Additionally, firefighters with diagnosed heart disease are at a higher risk of having a fatal heart attack. This cannot be stated clearly enough - if you have these risk factors, your chance of having a fatal heart attack on the job is higher than if you don't.