Close Calls: The Art of Avoiding a Stroke

Sept. 4, 2014
get the message out there that we can minimize cancer exposure, heart attack and stroke: the top killers of firefighters

Does the title of this column sound familiar? Odds are, you are familiar with Dave Dodson, the fire chief who taught us “The Art of Reading Smoke” – the outstanding firefighter training program that genuinely helps us all better understand what “that” smoke is telling us.

For years, “smoke” was “light or heavy smoke,” but thanks to Dave’s research and programs, understanding what we are seeing on arrival, and while operating allows us to be even more effective when operating at a fire. Without question, the fire service is better off because of fire instructors like Dave Dodson.

Dave now has another lesson to share with us.

For the few of you who may not know who Dave is, he has nearly 30 years as a firefighter and emergency service responder and has served as a battalion chief and fire department safety officer. Dave is a nationally recognized author and lecturer on safe emergency operations and is the course developer for popular programs that include “The Art of Reading Smoke,” “The Art of First-Due” and the “Incident Safety Officer Academy.” Our sincere thanks to Dave for reaching out to us and asking us to share his very personal, first-hand close call this month with all of you.

The following account is by Chief Dave Dodson:

I’ve only been on the wake-up side of a hospital recovery room gurney a few times – never for a serious or life-saving procedure. This past winter, I was again experiencing that foggy-minded perception of voices, images and memory issues as I awoke from a routine procedure, only this time, the doctor was present and ready to deliver a serious message. Though only half-awake, I clearly recall him saying that I was one lucky guy and very smart to have done what I did.

It all started last summer. I decided to celebrate my 50th birthday with a full-blown physical examination and cancer screens. The advice to celebrate this way came straight from two sources: Chief Billy Goldfeder, through his Close Calls monthly column in Firehouse® Magazine, his website and his “The Secret List” e-newsletter, as well as from my good friend Gary who is a firefighter cancer survivor from Anchorage Fire. See, it’s been more than a few years since I’ve been actively running calls as part of a fire department and, likewise, more than a few years since I’ve had a physical examination. Frankly, I’ve skipped routine physicals because I’ve felt pretty healthy and actually much stronger since I’ve taken on a personal trainer and made some diet changes. Well, Billy and Gary’s advice paid off.

First, the medical/physical results showed that I have the lungs of 70 year old! While I am guilty of smoking a few cigars every year, I’ve never smoked cigarettes or anything else on a regular basis. The ensuing tests revealed some troubling scar tissue and loss of lung capacity. Memories of all those 1970s and ’80s car fires, dumpster fires, “odor investigations,” overhaul activities and one particular chlorine leak incident – all without a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) – came flooding back. No excuse, but most of us didn’t wear SCBA for those “routine” activities back then (ignorant AND arrogant). I can accept the news (given the context), but I urge all firefighters to “just say no” to breathing smoke of any kind – anywhere, anytime. With a lot more effort, I can regain some capacity, but the damage has been done.

Second, several potentially cancerous polyps were found during my colonoscopy. Obviously, I had them removed – including one that was quite large, according to the doctor who delivered the news in the recovery room. Honestly, I wasn’t surprised, given what we continue to discover about the exposures firefighters have faced (my blood-lines have had NO cancer history). Waiting for the biopsy results was stressful, especially for my family: Being present for my kids’ college graduations and walking my daughter down the aisle are really important to THEM! Selfishly, I’d like to be there for them and I would like to experience being a Grandpa. Sure enough, the tissue results came back cancerous. While the doctors assure me that the removals and subsequent treatment were effective, close monitoring is essential. (A colonoscopy sounds bad, but it is actually easy with such great benefits!)

Lastly, my physical showed that I’ve made progress with my trainer and diet in bringing my historically high cholesterol down – and my heart is looking pretty strong. Still, I need to work harder and lose some more weight.

To you, my fellow firefighters: Please JUMP on all your physicals and pre-screens! If not for you, do it for those who love you and rely on you. I caught my issues early and so can you. To Billy and Gary: I thank you (and so do my kids!).

The following comments are by Chief Goldfeder:

Many of the close calls we write about in this column require numerous pages to fully explain the incident and related facts. Like this month, we NEVER write a column without the facts that are provided directly from those who were there – and we never publish a column without their review. It’s a big deal and why the integrity of this column and its reputation have been around for such a long time. The same goes for this month’s close call. It came directly from the person it affected: Dave Dodson. While Dave wrote many words above, the ones we really need you to focus on are “If not for you, do it for those who love you and rely on you.”

As we have said many times, while it is all about you, it is also about those who count on you. Your spouse, parents, kids, grandkids, friends – whoever – someone needs you to be around and there are things that you can do to maximize your time. Some will say, “Oh, it’s God’s will” when someone dies, and sure, to some extent. But remember, God also created our ability to manufacturer and eat Twinkies. We just need to not consume two six packs of cream-filled sponge cake every day. God gave us the ability to make choices, so make some choices without being so selfish whereas you are only thinking about you – what you want, what you like and what you don’t like. Think about the folks who need you. Think about how what you do, or don’t do, impacts them.

Now that you have read Dave’s story, here are a few links, thanks to the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Safety, Health and Survival Section, National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and Firefighter Cancer Support Network. It is those organizations and their members, working along with many other national and local fire organizations, that have helped get the message out there so that we can minimize cancer exposure, heart attack and stroke: the top killers of firefighters.

IAFF Heart, Health and Fitness information:

IAFC Safety, Health & Survival:

NVFC Heart Healthy Firefighter:

NFFF Health/Fitness:

Firefighter Cancer Support Network:


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