N.C. Chief Steams Ahead Despite Stroke

July 12, 2013
"It's all I've ever wanted to do -- be around the big red trucks," Lovelady Fire Chief Winfield Abee says.

July 11--RUTHERFORD COLLEGE -- Lovelady Fire and Rescue Chief Winfield Abee has been through some rough and tumble training during his more than three-decade career in emergency services.

As chief, he has also put many fellow emergency workers through the rigorous training required to be proficient in performing their often life-saving duties.

Abee now finds himself going through a different sort of training, and his efforts appear to be paying off.

The chief suffered a stroke on June 26 and after undergoing his initial physical therapy, he's returning to the work he loves.

"This is all I have ever wanted to do," Abee said after he made his fifth climb up a ladder Tuesday afternoon.

Each climb was accompanied by more than 70 pounds of gear used during fire and rescue operations.

That would ordinarily be a routine training exercise, but for Abee, getting back to the routine he has become accustomed to is now part of the physical therapy that is helping to bring him back to full force.

Kathryn Coffey, Abee's physical therapist from Blue Ridge Health Care Systems, said the chief is making great progress.

"You can still tell his left leg is not very stable," Coffey said. "He probably doesn't notice it as much as I do. I am pleased to see when he's on the ladder, we are not seeing that same instability."

Abee answers questions about his rehabilitation with a quip and a smile.

When asked how it felt going up the ladder again, he replied, "It feels like I'm out of shape."

"I am very fortunate, very grateful and very blessed that I don't have any form of paralysis or anything that has prevented me to advance as far as I have and has allowed me to do this," Abee said.

He calls the physical therapy he received at Valdese Hospital amazing and credits that program with getting him to the level of recovery he has achieved.

"Just lying in the hospital for four or five days, you don't realize just how much your muscles start locking up," Abee said.

He's held the chief's post for the past 12 years and has served with fire and rescue operations for 32 years.

"I've been doing this eight years longer than he's been alive," Abee said pointing to one of his fellow officers.

Abee deflects most conversation about his own predicament, preferring to point to the members of the department and how they have stepped up during his illness.

"We're looking after our community," Abee said. "These first responders and what they do -- fire, rescue or medical -- they are making the community a better place to be."

He said the effort to put a station in Connelly Springs "has been a great asset for us."

"Eventually, we want to build a station at the Middle Street Mountain/Flat Gap area," he said. "The geographical layout of our district is a unique layout and having those locations would help us serve the district better.'

All those who work in emergency services throughout the nation and the world feel they are part of one big family.

Abee said that has certainly been the way his colleagues have treated him.

"They've been tremendous. I've had to beat them off the door," the chief said. "They would ask if I needed the lawn mowed or something from the store. We are just one big family."

Abee emphasized just how much the officers have stepped up since he had to pull himself from the line.

"The biggest thing these guys did was to step up and get done the things I couldn't do," the chief said. "That's one thing I try to do is empower people and get them ready to step into leadership roles when something like this happens. If the top person is out for awhile, they are able to step in and keep things going, and they did. I'm very appreciative to them. I'm proud of what they have done. It's not because of me, it's because they've driven themselves to prepared."

In spite of the stroke, Abee said he is ready to get back in action and resume the long career he has enjoyed.

"I still like it. I still feel like I can contribute to the organization. There are a couple of other things I'd like to see done as far as some long-range plans and goals," he said. "I want to keep helping these guys to grow professionally and personally so there are leaders that can step into those roles when others of us decide it's time to move on. I still get excited about it.

"I'm living the dream," Abee said. "It's all I've ever wanted to do -- be around the big red trucks."

Copyright 2013 - The News Herald, Morganton, N.C.

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