A Line-of-Duty Death Saved My Life

On Sept. 25, 2011, Lieutenant Keith Rankin, 38, of the Lancaster Township Fire Department in Lancaster County, PA, suffered a fatal cardiac emergency while participating in a live-burn exercise at the Lancaster County Fire School. I am very fortunate to...


To access the remainder of this piece of premium content, you must be registered with Firehouse. Already have an account? Login

Register in seconds by connecting with your preferred Social Network.

OR

Complete the registration form.

Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required

George asked me if I was OK and I said I was. He then asked me if I knew what had happened and I said I did. But then I began to look around and I saw the room was full of nurses and doctors who were not there what seemed like a second ago. As I continued to look around, I noticed I had AED pads on my chest that I did not remember being there before. I asked George, “Did you shock me?” He said no, but “I did give you a cardiac thump.” That’s when I knew something bad had just taken place.

In the hospital

Over the next seven days, I took up residency in the Intermediate Intensive Care Unit (IICU) while they ran tests. I went through a heart catheterization to check my coronary arteries and heart muscle, of which everything was in great shape. My cardiologist, Dr. Ward Pulliam, felt the problem was that of an electrical problem in my heart. He ordered a cardiac MRI and a second heart catheterization to perform a catheter ablation; a process where they find the cells in my heart that are misfiring and causing the bad rhythm and then they essentially destroy the bad cells.

After two days at LGH, the doctors felt confident that what was causing the fluttering in my chest was a problem called accelerated idioventricular rhythm (AIVR). This is when the ventricles (bottom chambers of the heart) beat faster than the atria (top chambers of the heart) for at least three consecutive heartbeats. Not fast enough to be considered ventricular tachycardia (V-tach), but too fast to be an effective heartbeat. The fluttering I was feeling was a string of heartbeats in AIVR.

While at LGH, I experienced strings of 20-plus heartbeats of AIVR, one of which was during my time in the ER when I went unresponsive and received a pericardial thump that brought my heart back into a normal rhythm. A pericardial thump is a bit of an old-school technique when a properly trained person, such as a paramedic or doctor, uses their fist to strike a person experiencing symptoms like I did in the center of their sternum. This force can generate about two to five joules of electrical current to the heart and restore a normal rhythm. Generally speaking, this is done during a witnessed cardiac arrest or V-tach.

After all of the tests and the ablation, my symptoms have diminished to an acceptable level and I should have a normal life. My only restriction has been a tough one to swallow – I am no longer allowed to take part in interior firefighting activities. My brain tells me it’s the right thing and I understand why, but my heart has a different opinion. I’m listening to my brain and my doctors and following this one no matter how tough it is.

I have shared this with my brothers and sisters in the firehouse and they are all looking out for me and have been very supportive and understanding. As one friend put it, “You are my lifeline when I go in. Your role and knowledge protects me. I trust your knowledge and experience. I need you to watch my back.” I will continue as a command-level officer as well as an instructor.

How Lieutenant Rankin saved my life

When Lieutenant Rankin died in September, I really took a hard look at my health. Lieutenant Rankin was a few years younger me and we were alike in a lot of ways. I found myself not in the best shape of my life by a long stretch. I was more than 100 pounds overweight and I had high blood pressure and high cholesterol. My physical activities were minimal.

I completed a 110-floor stair climb on Sept. 11, 2011, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Although I had a lot riding against me, with some training beforehand I was able to complete the stair climb. Over the next few weeks, I kept walking at a local track with a group of friends. We would meet and just walk and talk and little by little I was slowly improving my health. In January 2012, I joined a local YMCA and began to work out even more. I set two goals for myself this year – to lose 50 pounds and run a five-kilometer race. At the Y, I run the treadmill, do the stair-climb machine, ride the stationary bike and use the weight machines. Since January 2012, I have already lost eight to 10 pounds.

After Lieutenant Rankin’s death, I started to pay much closer attention to my personal health and began to make changes for the better. I also started to listen harder to what my body was telling me. I am totally convinced that if the events of Feb. 3 had happened six months earlier, I would have ignored the fluttering and kept on going about my day and more than likely I would not be here today.