Volunteer firefighter returns to work after amputation

Firefighter William Fisher returned to work eight months after having his right leg amputated below the knee, the result of a lingering injury from his Army service in Iraq

The Baltimore Sun

ODENTON, Md. — It's a typical scene at fire departments everywhere: lockers lining the garage, with coats hanging and boots at the ready for quick changes when an emergency calls.

But at the Odenton Volunteer Fire Company one boot has a leg sticking out of it.

Firefighter William Fisher returned to work at Odenton this month, eight months after having his right leg amputated below the knee, the result of a lingering injury from his Army service in Iraq.

After intense rehabilitation, seemingly endless paperwork to prove that he met the National Fire Protection Association standards, and extensive work with a company to develop a special boot for his prosthetic leg, Fisher printed out dozens of copies of a certification declaring him fit for duty and placed them in everyone's mailbox at the station.

His first call was a minor vehicle fire at a nearby martial-arts studio that he responded to with two rookie paid firefighters. Fisher said he was "tickled pink" to finally be back.

Fisher, a 35-year-old native of Mobile, Ala., enlisted in the Marine Corps and served eight years before switching to the Army in 2006. In between deployments while stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Fisher began working as a volunteer firefighter in his spare time.

A marksman in an Army special operations unit with the rank of sergeant, Fisher was on watch duty in Iraq in 2009 when he fell 40 feet to the ground, crushing the talus bone in the middle of his ankle.

Over the next four years, Fisher had six surgeries aimed at keeping his ankle functioning, including a transplant of a cadaver bone and, when that failed, a cow bone.

Fisher's surgeries and rehabilitation have taken place at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and he lives at Fort Meade, where his wife, Gayle, an Army captain, is stationed. In 2011, he joined the Odenton volunteers, who supported him through surgeries and subsequent recovery.

He would join them on calls when his foot was healthy. "I would ride apparatus until my next surgery and then get cleared, and then ride apparatus until the next surgery," Fisher said.

Eventually, the repeated surgeries got to be too much, and Fisher said he asked for an amputation — a decision he hasn't regretted.

"Sometimes I would fight through pain. Now, with the amputation, it's so much easier," he said.

Three weeks after the August surgery, Fisher was able to walk with a prosthetic leg. Eight weeks after surgery, he started training to be recertified as a firefighter. Fisher's doctors at Walter Reed had to attest to the Fire Department that he was ready to return.

Fisher did some of his training at a fire station near Walter Reed, pulling fire hoses and lifting ladders. He even enlisted his physical and occupational therapists in his recovery.

"I carried PTs, OTs over my shoulders up and down stairs to make sure I was ready," he said.

Fisher had to prove he could meet 13 specific standards, including being able to carry hoses, move patients and get on and off the fire trucks. He also had to show he could get dressed in full firefighter gear in 2 minutes and 30 seconds. He did it in 1 minute and 15 seconds.

Ken Willette, an official with the National Fire Protection Association, said the standards that Fisher had to meet are designed to ensure that injured firefighters can do their jobs well. The standards have been revised in recent years as prosthetics have improved.

"These advances have made it easier for folks to get into the fire service and maintain their position in the fire service," he said.

Fisher's firefighting prosthetic — one of 11 that he owns — is made of carbon fiber and titanium and is designed to withstand any fire. It's secure enough that if Fisher himself had to be rescued from a burning building, he could be dragged out by his prosthetic.

Fisher is the second amputee in Anne Arundel's firefighting force. In January, Trey Small, who has a prosthetic left hand and just a thumb and index finger on his right — the result of a childhood fireworks accident — graduated from the fire academy and became a paid firefighter.

Asked if he ever doubted whether he'd make it back to firefighting, Fisher answered: "In the way back of my mind ... maybe."

Robert Rose, president of the volunteer fire company, didn't doubt Fisher would make it back. "He was a go-getter. Nothing slowed him down," Rose said.

Fisher is especially valuable to the Odenton volunteers because he's retired from the military and able to take shifts during the day, when most volunteer firefighters are at their regular jobs.

The Odenton crew is making sure Fisher doesn't let his accomplishment go to his head, even when the county fire chief and county executive stopped by Wednesday to present him with a helmet to welcome him back.

"We don't give him any special treatment," Wylie Donaldson, one of Odenton's longest-serving members, with decades of service, said before the ceremony.

Before the dignitaries arrived, Fisher had to mop the bathroom.

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