Former Fla. fire department medical director dies from ALS
Robert Kiely took on the position for only a dollar a year in 1982 and wrote a 360-page protocol handbook for the department
By Dana Treen
The Florida Times-Union
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Robert French Kiely, a man called a hero by those who could be considered heros themselves, died Friday following a nearly two-year battle against a disease that stole the skills he needed to mend the trauma inflicted on the bodies of others.
A physician who spent decades as the medical director for Jacksonville’s Fire and Rescue Department and the Sheriff’s Office SWAT unit as well as the last 10-years as an Army Reserve doctor, Dr. Kiely died of ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – Lou Gehrig’s disease.
His death was a week following his 64th birthday bash.
“He’s my hero,” said Murray Kramer, who is retired as both a fire department captain and Army colonel who worked with Dr. Kiely in Jacksonville and was the person the 50-plus-year-old doctor turned to when he wanted to join the Army.
“This guy was a kid in a candy store,” Kramer said of Dr. Kiely’s immersion as both a fire department and SWAT physician and Army Reserve lt. colonel who served two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He did all three as well as operate a private practice.
Kramer recalled satellite phone calls from the physician serving with the Army’s Special Forces.
“‘Yeah,’” Kramer remembered hearing over the link, “‘I’m out doing ground assaults and air assaults.’”
Kramer said he reminded his friend that his rank didn’t require him to be in the field.
“‘We don’t have any medics. They are all wounded or are dead,’” was the quick reply. “‘There’s nobody else, I’ve go to do it.”
It’s how the West Virginia native, who played a year for legendary football coach Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama despite weighing only 150 pounds, wanted to live.
“He was in the middle of it,” Kramer said.
Kramer’s wife, Army Cmdr. Linda Kramer, leads the 345th Combat Support Hospital where Dr. Kiely served when he was deployed. From helping erect field hospitals to running emergency room units to teaching younger medics, he was a “huge asset” to the Army, she said.
“He will be so tremendously missed in so many roles in the community,” she said.
Dr. Kiely was retiring from the Army as a colonel when he died, she said.
After a transfer to Florida State University from Alabama and obtaining his medical degree from the University of Florida, Dr. Kiely finished internships in trauma care in Philadelphia and Jacksonville.
He worked with the former medical director of the Jacksonville fire department and took over the job for $1 a year in 1982.
His interest in on-scene trauma care began in 1984 when he was on the way home and arrived at an accident involving a woman whose car hit a tree, sending her through the windshield.
He stopped to help and ended up working on the patient while a state trooper held a flashlight, he said in a 2014 interview with the Times-Union.
He began writing protocols for the department, beginning what he and collaborators would evolve into a 360-page tome of emergency medical care for the field.
At the time, he said he simply enjoyed “all the drama and all the trauma.”
He wanted the department to be at the forefront of care, said Kurtis Wilson, director and chief of Jacksonville Fire and Rescue.
“For him, there would be a new piece of equipment he wanted to try or a drug he wanted to try,” Wilson said.
The work did not stop at the scene or at Dr. Kiely’s private practice, which was at one point included the ownership of an acute-care facility. Wilson said.
He was always ready to help firefighters and their families. “He’d always take your phone call,” Wilson said.
Wilson said he remembered when Dr. Kiely decided to join the Army. Although he was always in top shape, he went to boot camp to compete with new, much younger recruits.
It was no obstacle.
“He was out-working 18-year-olds,” Wilson said.
Dr. Kiely also became a reserve police officer and a physician who accompanied police on SWAT calls in the event he was needed to care for an officer.
Former Jacksonville Sheriff John Ruterford told the Times-Union in 2014 that Dr. Kiely “loves to be the first one there to straighten things out,” when bad things happened.
In a statement, Sheriff Mike Williams said Dr. Kiely was “kind and gentle, and a man of great valor.”
Williams commanded the SWAT unit earlier in his career so he worked with the doctor.
“Part of his legacy will always be the compassion he showed everyone, especially in challenging times – not just on the battlefield, or in his medical practice, or working with us as a SWAT doc, but in his everyday encounters with people.”
The day of Dr. Kiely’s retirement party in 2014, he kick-boxed and had been running 4-mile workouts.
By his 64th birthday, he had not been able to speak for a couple of months and was extremely frail, Wilson said.
His last ride in a rescue unit was Friday’s trip to the funeral home, Wilson said.
Dr. Kiely will be commemorated with military, fire and police honors.
Dr. Kiely is survived by his wife, Robin Lee Kiely; daughters, Candace DeGraaf and Layla Wood; sister, Marie Kiely Tynan; brothers, Charles Kiely and Guy D Kiely; and five grandchildren.
Visitation will be 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 122 Fire Fighter Hall, 625 Stockton Street, Jacksonville. A memorial service will be 10 a.m. to noon Wednesday at the First Baptist Church of Jacksonville Ruth Lindsay Auditorium, 139 West Ashley Street, Jacksonville.
In lieu of flowers please make donations to the Robert Kiely Foundation. Please contact Ron May at (904) 246-7484 for further details. Arrangements are under the care and direction of Ponte Vedra Valley Funeral Home at 4750 Palm Valley Road, Ponte Vedra Beach.
Copyright 2016 The Florida Times-Union