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Someone is Missing Tonight

By Fire Marshal Gary Bowker
Kansas Everyone Goes Home Advocate

As I sit beside the fireplace while writing this, it has been 14 months since having heart bypass surgery and all is well with the Bowker family. I count the many blessings too numerous to mention that my family and I have received. One of the blessings that I am most grateful for is that I am alive and well this holiday season, and that my family and friends were not mourning the loss of a husband, a father, and a brother. But that was almost not the case. My story begins with the events that occurred during a structure fire I responded to on August 29 last year in my community.

The Winfield Fire Department was dispatched to the report of a structure fire at 2:59 p.m. I happened to be only a short distance from the address and I arrived several minutes before our first due engine and quint. The weather conditions were very warm and humid, which is typical for a summer afternoon in Kansas. Upon my arrival I noted that we had a single-story wood frame duplex apartment approximately 50 percent involved, with flames showing from the windows on the A side of the structure, and heavy dark smoke pushing from the eaves at both B and D ends of the attic.

After relaying my size-up report to the incoming units, I put on my turnout gear and began to ascertain whether or not the occupants were still inside the structure. A neighbor reported that nobody was at home and the occupants were in the process of moving in. Upon the arrival of Winfield Engine-71, Quint-71 and Command-71, I assumed the duties of incident safety officer.

Offensive attack
An offensive fire attack was quickly extended through the front door into the involved apartment along with a primary search of the involved units. The fire was brought under control within about 25 minutes. By this point in time, I had conducted five or six 360s around the structure and had coordinated the scene safety concerns with command. The initial attack crew was sent to rehab and our automatic aid engine company from neighboring Arkansas City Fire Department had arrived on scene. Their crew was in the process of conducting a secondary search and checking for fire extension into the adjoining apartment unit.

At this point in time I felt that it was time for me to go to rehab and cool down. I thought to myself, ‘I’ve only been on scene about half and hour and I shouldn’t be this overheated and fatigued.’ After informing command that I would be checking into rehab, one of our captains stopped to talk to me. The next thing I recalled was being helped into the EMS ambulance and my turnout gear being stripped off of me. I had reached the point of total exhaustion about one minute after feeling fatigued and realizing that I needed to go to rehab.

After being transported to the hospital and receiving IV fluids, I quickly recovered and wanted to get back to the fire scene. I thought to myself, ‘I really do need to be in better physical condition and I could stand to lose a few pounds. I have to make PT more of a priority in my schedule.’ Several weeks later while working on the treadmill in the fire station, I noticed that I was again becoming too quickly fatigued after about a 20-minute workout. I was really feeling worn-out and my legs were beginning to feel weak. Again I believed that I just needed to be in better condition and that I’m not getting any younger.

Now fast forward to the morning of October 10, 2007. My alarm went off that morning at 6:30 a.m. and I got up for work. I noticed that I had a dull ache in the upper center portion of my chest. As I was shaving, this ache extended into my left arm and into my back between the shoulder blades. I did not like this. I knew what these symptoms were and I did not want to believe this was happening to me.

I also realized that denial is the No.1 symptom of an impending heart attack. Another fact that I realized about this time: firefighters do not like to call 911 for themselves. I called the fire station instead and had a crew at my home within several minutes. They radioed EMS while in route to my residence. After arriving at the hospital and being treated, the blood test revealed that I did not have a heart attack. The decision was made to go ahead and transport me to Wichita to the Kansas Heart Hospital for further evaluation. After a trip to the cath-lab I was informed that I had a 98 percent blockage of all three of the main coronary arteries, with additional blockage of a number of the lesser ones.

By-pass surgery was the only option. I was diagnosed with Coronary Heart Disease. The following morning I went into surgery and received seven heart by-passes.

Felt better
Within several days I could tell that I felt better than I had in six or seven years. To date I have lost more than 30 pounds, I am on a regular exercise program and I feel great. It’s been a number of years since I could honestly say that. My wife and I have modified our diet to that of a healthy-heart lifestyle. You know, I’ve come to the realization that the typical American diet is really loaded with fat and calories and it’s killing us. This is an area we truly need to make the cultural change happen in our lives for healthier longer living.

For me, the alternative is that I would likely die early if I did not modify my lifestyle. I am no longer concerned about “losing weight” as the end result of my dieting and exercise. My focus is now on having a healthier heart. The weight loss is taking care of itself as a result. It is worthy to note that my heart disease was in large part caused by hereditary factors. My father died early from this disease in 1977. The primary symptom I experienced prior to the morning of October 10 was early exhaustion when I exerted myself. I did not associate that with cardiac trouble. Thinking back, I recall several times this past summer after coming home from work that the muscles in both arms would ache. Again, that was unusual, but I did not associate that as a warning sign. I had a ticking-time-bomb inside of my chest and didn’t know it.

I could have been the poster boy for a cardiac-related line-of-duty death … a 51-year-old male, chief officer, somewhat overweight, poor dieting habits, didn’t exercise enough, and had a family history of heart disease and hypertension that was being controlled with meds.

How many of you fit into this same category that I did? Is your department on its way to having a LODD?

If you have a family history of heart disease or have experienced any of the symptoms that I did, you should see your physician immediately. Now is the time. Don’t put it off. If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for your family. Do it for your crew. Stress and over exertion is the No.1 killer of firefighters in the United States today. And folks, in most cases it is completely preventable. Only by the grace of God am I still here to celebrate another holiday season with my family. The structure fire on August 29 could have easily been my last alarm. According to my cardiologist, I was “hanging on by a thread.” Responding to another fire, going up the flight of stairs to my office five or six times a day, or just sitting at my desk could have been it. I went to the edge as about as close as you can get without going over and having a massive heart attack.

In the past 14 months I’ve lost 55 lbs, I watch my diet, exercise regularly and I feel better now than when I was 30.

I wonder how many among our ranks will be missing next Christmas because of a preventable LODD. Is anybody listening out there? Last year, we lost 114 firefighters in LODD incidents. This year so far we have had 113 LODDs and December is not yet over. One thing for sure is that another 113 families are mourning this Christmas and their children are missing their daddy. I thank God I was not number 115 last year. What are you doing to not be one of the 100-plus LODDs that will unfortunately likely occur next year?

Gary Bowker is a retired fire chief with the U.S. Air Force and retired fire marshal with the City of Winfield, Kansas. Gary has 34 years of fire service experience and is an associate instructor with the University of Kansas Fire & Rescue Training Institute. He also serves as a Kansas Advocate with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Everyone Goes Home program. He and his wife, Pam, have three sons and a daughter. All three sons are firefighters and his daughter is studying to become a nurse.

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