Chief's Corner: Lessons learned from a significant life event

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Deputy U.S. Fire Administrator Glenn Gaines writes about a recent health scare and shares advice with the fire service on listening to your body and getting an annual physical.

Posted on April 14, 2014 by Deputy U.S. Deputy Fire Administrator Glenn Gaines

I have been physically active in a variety of ways for most of my adult life. I began a routine of jogging/running in 1971 as a result of my department – Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department in Fairfax, VA – standing up a mandatory physical fitness program. I was an active member of several men’s competitive softball teams. I competed in power lifting under the guidance of a professional trainer for several years. Although a little overweight in my now September years, I’m in pretty good shape for a 70-year-old. I have never spent a night in a hospital, although I have spent some time in emergency rooms with burns, a sprained knee and a few stitches.

In early January, I began to feel some mild discomfort upon beginning aerobic activity. On January 28, I visited my family doctor, told him my story and he ran an EKG. He was concerned enough with the results to send me over to my cardiologist that same day. My cardiologist scheduled me for a catheterization after convincing me this was the most expeditious approach. He was certain it was needed, regardless of any tests that he might run on me.

Two days later, I reported to the catheterization laboratory at the hospital. The doctor found a partial blockage in one artery and other lesser blockages that he felt could be handled with medication. I was released the same day and returned to work in three days.

On February 8, I was working at my desk in Emmitsburg, MD at the U.S. Fire Administration. I began to feel some discomfort in the upper chest area. I called my cardiologist and explained what I was experiencing. He advised me to come to his office and he would check things out. My staff assistant heard this conversation and insisted that someone drive me. She called National Fire Academy Superintendent Denis Onieal. Denis agreed to drive me and we headed toward my doctor’s office in Fairfax, VA, some 75 miles away.

About 25 miles into the trip, I began to experience more severe symptoms and said something like, “Denis we are about to pass an emergency department en route to a doctor’s office with me experiencing chest discomfort. That does not make a lot of sense. Let’s stop by the emergency room and have them run an EKG and see what is going on.”

I entered the emergency department in Frederick, MD and presented my symptoms. The triage nurse assigned me to a gurney and a young technician ran an EKG on me. He completed the run and went back to the doctor’s desk area to get the EKG interpreted. In short order, the doctor came running up the hallway, wide-eyed and ordering in a high-pitched voice, “I need a room for Mr. Gaines, stat!” Someone responded, “Room 22.” Right away, the young technician began to roll me toward Room 22. While we were en route, I heard a page for “code Heart Room 22 emergency department.” So I am thinking, “Gee, that would be my room and me!”

On site to perform a scheduled catheterization later that day was Dr. Wong, a cardiologist from Johns Hopkins Hospital who is contracted with Frederick Memorial Hospital to provide cardiac services. Dr. Wong walked into my room with my EKG and asked, “Mr. Gaines, how do you feel?” As my clothes were being removed and numerous leads were being connected to me, I said something like, “Well, I feel some discomfort in the upper chest.” The doctor said, “That is understandable; you are having a heart attack. We must move you directly to the catheterization laboratory and take a look at what is happening with your heart.”

Upon waking up, Dr. Wong met with me and explained that they found a blood clot in one of my coronary arteries and cleared out several other locations “downstream” that were indicated by my cardiologist. I was very relieved, both mentally and physically. Honestly, I felt great. In fact, I continue to feel great and have begun to exercise carefully and slowly to get my aerobic capacity, flexibility and strength back.

Lessons learned

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EMS Week 2013 – One Mission One Team
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Reflecting on the 40th Anniversary of America Burning
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The Etiquette of Being a Fire Chief (by Glenn Gaines, published on the Mu+ual Aid Blog)
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