Why You Should Get A Physical: A Close Friend's Close Call

For all of you who know me personally, this column will probably come as a great shock. As many of you know, I am usually not the man to call when it comes to weight control, physical fitness or pursuing a healthy diet. As one who is just a tad too short for his weight, good physical conditioning is a dream, not a reality. This month, however, I will discuss a close call experienced by a friend of long-standing, and its impact upon his friends and family.

This story involves my long-time pal Joe Ryan. Readers may remember him as the first-due battalion chief at the St. Casimir's Polish Roman Catholic Church fire in December 1997 (see "On The Job - New Jersey," March 1998). Joe and I were appointed to the Newark, NJ, Fire Department on the same day in 1973. We have been friends, brother firefighters and lodge brothers for many years.

In December of last year, Joe hit a rough patch of road. He suffered a gall bladder attack just before Christmas. After a couple weeks spent doctoring the problem, his physicians decided that an operation was in order. As you know, a great deal of preoperative testing must be done to insure that a person is physically capable of handling the stress of surgery. We were all aware of Joe's problems, but we were not prepared for what one of the tests uncovered.

During an echo-cardiogram performed at a local hospital, physicians uncovered a defective valve in Joe's heart. Their best professional opinion was that it was a birth defect which had gone undetected, like a ticking time bomb. My pal Joe is 53, a year older than me. That seems pretty old to be finding birth defects. However, the story gets ever more curious.

During an interview with his doctor, Joe was asked whether he could remember anyone in his family dying suddenly. As it turned out, Joe's dad had died suddenly back in 1976 at Newark's Pennsylvania Station while waiting for his train to speed him home to the suburbs. He too was a member of the Newark Fire Department. That day stands out in my mind because my brother Bob, Joe and I had attended a line-of-duty funeral that day and were on our way home to the news about Joe's dad.

Joe made further inquiries of his mother. As it turned out, a number of Joe's relatives had died suddenly. Nothing much was made of it back in those days. As a kid growing up in Freehold, NJ, I can remember families that seemed prone to heart attacks. In fact, my dad's best friend died of a heart attack in 1960, while on a business trip to the Midwest.

Armed with the facts of Joe's family history, the doctors determined that the male members of his family were prone to this heart valve birth defect. Joe's son and brother have been scheduled for testing. Going further, Joe reached out in an attempt to locate a branch of the Ryan family that no one had been in contact with for decades. Joe told me that it was eerie to listen to his cousin's description of a similar history in that branch of the family, with one cousin dying at the age of 47.

In early February, Joe underwent open-heart surgery for the installation of a replacement metal valve in his heart. He is currently recuperating at home. After an initial period when he stated that he felt like he had been "hit by a locomotive," he has moved on to the point where he is walking two to three miles per day. He knows that it will be awhile before he can return to his boys in the Fifth Battalion district, but he is being good and following all doctor's orders.

The lesson here is quite simple. Joe, like me, was not a regular visitor to our general practitioner. I can say, however, that Joe and I have been religious in our trips to the chiropractor. He and I have been bent, folded, spindled and mutilated by our years of service to the citizens of Newark.

Joe, like me, is past the 50-year mark. Joe and I have spent our 25-year careers going to fires. I do not want to say that we are worn out, but if we were fire trucks, we would surely be candidates for a refurb job. And remember, when Joe is completely recovered from his open-heart surgery, he still has to face the gall bladder surgery. Funny thing, though - Joe seems pleased as punch to be around for the gall bladder operation.

The important moral of this story is that you should have a periodic physical examination. Remember, Joe and I are pre-OSHA. The last actual physicals that we got at work (except when buildings were falling on us, or we were getting hit by fire trucks, or burned) were our pre-employment physicals in 1973.

Here is where the new OSHA laws will be of great assistance. Fire departments which have been a bit lax in the realm of employee health and fitness will get off the dime and do the right thing by their personnel.

As for my brother and I, we have both been to our family doctors since Joe's travail, and there is a series of test for us to undergo.

We are making progress. But I don't want you to expect me to be 100 pounds thinner the next time you see me. Some things are healthy. Others are miracles. But do not let your health be a candidate for luck, rather than prudence.

Dr. Harry R. Carter, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a battalion commander with the Newark, NJ, Fire Department. He is also a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia, NJ, Fire Company. Dr. Carter is an Associate of the Institution of Fire Engineers of Great Britain (AIFireE).