30 firefighters tested for heart disease to ward off attacks
2011-02-07 - 16:23:39 - Current News
After a run during a fitness workout Aug. 9, Russell Applegate suddenly didn't feel well. The 12-year Chandler firefighter/paramedic had difficulty catching his breath and felt like his neck was swollen, Applegate recalled. Soon the physically fit paramedic was at Mercy Gilbert Medical Center in cardiac heart failure from a heart attack. That's why he joined 30 other Southeast Valley firefighers Wednesday for a health screening. "We do our annual physical, and I've always had the highest level of fitness," said Applegate, who hopes to return to full-time duty in mid-March. Doctors last August found one of his arteries almost completely blocked, but his heart was not damaged. Still, the attack was a dramatic wake-up call. Although firefighters must pass a series of physical exams to keep their certification, those tests typically don't go far enough to identify potentially life-threatening conditions, said Kepra Jack, a paramedic coordinator at Mercy Gilbert who worked on Applegate. On Wednesday, a dozen firefighters each from Chandler and Gilbert and six from Queen Creek were weighed, measured, had their blood drawn and given a heart scan to check for blockages. The First Responders Heart Screening pilot program was funded through a $9,000 grant from the Catholic Healthcare West Foundation. Jack and her team are planning to apply for $1 million in grant funding to provide 500 exams for firefighters throughout the Valley. "I decided there was something we needed to do," said Jack, the wife of a Gilbert firefighter. "My goal is to have this be part of their regular physical testing." The tests could prove beneficial for firefighters. A 2009 report by the U.S. Fire Administration found that heart attacks were the most frequent cause of death among firefighters, and that 45 percent of them occurred while they were on duty. Overall, firefighter deaths nationwide have been on a two-year decline. In 2007 and 2008, 118 firefighters died and in 2009, the number dipped to 90. Last year, the administration recorded 87 deaths. The fire administration's report mirrored a 2008 study by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that found firefighters had up to a 300 percent increased risk for heart disease compared with the general population. The study attributed that increased risk to unique combinations of genetics and their work. Within the past two years, three Southeast Valley firefighters have died of heart attacks as the result of undetected heart disease, Jack said. "After these tragic deaths, our communities struggled to find answers as to why this was happening to such a young, healthy population who undergo routine heart and fitness testing," she said. Gilbert Fire Battalion Chief Mike DeVirgilio is all too familiar with completing regular fitness exams, having worked 25 years with Tempe fire and the past five years with Gilbert. "Our industry routinely places us in direct exposure to various chemicals and other materials," DeVirgilio said. "Our lifespan is shortened, and any tests to help ID these problems as early as possible is a good thing." Read more: http://www.azcentral.com/community/gilbert/articles/2011/02/03/20110203southeast-valley-firefighters-heart-disease-tests.html#ixzz1DJnwaRtO