Ark. Capt. adjusts to amputation, still donning gear fast
Capt. Nolan Meinardus' leg was amputated below the knee due to complications of diabetes
FORT SMITH, Ark. — Having a left leg amputated from the knee down hasn’t kept Capt. Nolan Meinardus of the Fort Smith Fire Department from putting on his turnout gear within one minute.
In fact, the 31-year veteran firefighter said the only time he really notices it is when he’s at home watching TV. He can still climb a ladder, ride a motorcycle and carry loads with relative ease, although it’s been an adjustment, he said.
“At first — it’s like anything — you lose the leg and you get kind of depressed,” Meinardus said. “I had pretty good support from the wife and the guys here at the station, saying, ‘Hey, this ain’t nothing. You’ll get through this pretty easy.’”
Meinardus, a diabetic, had his leg amputated March 3. About nine years ago, he was at his house when he stepped on a Hot Wheels car, cutting a small hole in his toe. The laceration never fully healed during the intervening years. An infection spread to his foot and ankle until it reached a potential to become life-threatening.
“You always hear that with diabetes, that you’ve got to watch your feet, and basically, you do,” he said. “Something as small as that cut was — I mean, it was just a little tear in it. It ended up being a major deal.”
The decision to amputate the leg was pretty straight-forward: either lose the leg at the knee and live a full life, or take a chance with the infection and risk not surviving. Meinardus’ wife of 35 years, Rebecca, told him the choice was his to make.
After enduring nine years of complications from the initial injury, Meinardus made the decision rather easily.
The day of his surgery at Mercy Fort Smith, many of his fellow firefighters were there to show their support. The entire department had visited frequently throughout his stay at the hospital, and during any other tough time Meinardus had endured.
“There were times that the hospital room had more firefighters in it than it could really hold,” he said. “Even during my surgery, they said there were a lot of people in the waiting room.”
Firefighter Peter Gross, who has served under Meinardus for eight years, was at the hospital for his captain’s surgery. Gross’ father served as captain at Fire Station No. 2 before Meinardus took over duties when Gross’ father retired.
Gross said that even when Meinardus was sick, he worked harder than most guys on the job.
“You spend eight years with somebody every third day for 24 hours — you kind of learn each other’s ticks and how to work with them,” Gross said. “We had good guys fill in for him, but it’s just not the same. … He’s one of the main reasons I wanted to come back to 2.”
Typically, during a firefighter’s first year they move around to different stations every three months. When the opportunity came to return to Station No. 2, Gross took it, he said.
The strong sense of family among firefighters is one of the great things about the department, and something that has helped Meinardus get through tough times, he said.
“The Fire Department is like a big family — you’ve got dads and sons on the job, cousins; I mean, everybody in a way is related to everybody, and everybody knows everybody’s families,” Meinardus said. “When you work with them, you get to know their children when they’re sick and at ballgames.”
Fort Smith Fire Chief Mike Richards said that because firefighters spend a third of their lives together — 24 hours on, followed by 48 hours off — the result is a camaraderie in which the struggles and joys of each day are shared among the department.
“We form a bond that’s hard to describe with each other — not just with the immediate crews you work with, but all those run to emergency scenes with and train with,” he said. “If we didn’t share those feelings with each other, if we didn’t care for each other, we wouldn’t be nearly as effective as we are.”
The department has a tremendous amount of respect for Meinardus because of his work ethic, both at the scene of a fire and away, Richards said.
“We knew that if there was anybody that could ever come back from that, and come back to work as a firefighter, he could,” Richards said. “It was remarkable to watch him come from the crutches to what he is doing right now and in the last 60 days before he came to work.”
Meinardus has had a prosthetic leg for more than a month and returned to the department Aug. 2, serving in a full capacity. Since getting off antibiotics, his diabetes and other health issues have leveled out.
“He’s noticeably healthier-looking,” Gross said.
One of the tougher challenges for Meinardus has been sleeping with the prosthetic on. He has to wear it when he stays overnight at the station, because taking it off would increase his response time to a call.
Meinardus encourages anyone who has lost a limb or is going through a similar situation to continue to believe in themselves.
“There’s no reason to give up a life just because you lose a limb,” he said.
Even under the serious circumstances, members of the department have kept the mood light at times. After Meinardus got out of surgery, his fellow firefighters had a gift for him — a pirate hat and a hook.
“He might get a nice oak peg leg for his retirement,” Gross said.
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