Patrick Burns, a career firefighter, 41 at the time, had just joined his wife, Anita, for a run in the Doney Park area. She was preparing for an upcoming marathon and had asked him along on a training run.
Stationed at Summit Fire Department, Burns had taken the day off as vacation time for the Thanksgiving holiday, 2009.
The couple had left their cell phones at home, along with their two daughters, who they were sure would be all right alone, as they were older now.
“I probably went three blocks and I started to feel very nauseous,” Burns recalled. “I dropped to one knee. I just didn’t feel right, but I had no chest pain or radiating pain.”
His wife ran to his side.
Burns could see no logical reason for his distress; he had just passed his annual physical for the job. He had even played six hours of racquetball the night before. He did, however, remember having a little upset stomach that night.
However, that morning, something was very wrong.
“I tried to stand up and take a few steps and couldn’t; my wife became very worried,” he said. “She wanted to get help but I said not to. She was being helpful; I was being stubborn.”
A car came out of the forest and offered a cell phone to call 911, followed by a car from the Sheriff’s office that just happened to pull up.
Soon, an ambulance arrived at the scene and transported Burns to Flagstaff Medical Center.
“I’m still not panicking too much,” he said. “But then I told the paramedic I was starting to feel chest pain. ‘We better upgrade to a Code 3 [lights and sirens],’ I told him.”
He was wheeled into the ER, and “then the Cath Lab; that’s where they take people who are having a heart attack,” Burns said. “They did a procedure where they put a stent in my heart, the left circumflex artery, the one that had clotted.”
It is Dr. Omar Wani, an interventional cardiologist at Mountain Heart in Flagstaff, who is credited with saving the heart and life of Patrick Burns in 2009 by inserting a stent into his artery, allowing blood to flow once again to his heart.
That was the firefighter’s first heart attack; the second came in July 2011.
“Both times, I was out exercising,” said Burns, who is now 50.
After his first attack, Burns had researched his family heart health history.
“My dad died at 52 of a heart attack; that’s all I really knew about my family,” he said. “I researched and found out on both sides of my family, all my male grandparents and great-grandparents died in their 40s of heart attacks.”
After his second heart attack, Burns knew he wanted to know more about the possible health risks of his chosen profession.
“I started doing research on firefighters and heart attacks. I found there is a 300 percent greater risk of having a heart attack than the general population.”
Some of the health risks for firefighters include high stress, upsetting and emotional sights and situations, bad eating habits and eating on the run, as well as serious interruptions of sleep, Burns said.
“You might be in deep sleep, and at 2 in the morning a big alarm will go off, and you have to go from zero to 200 miles an hour,” Burns explained. “You have to drive fast to the fire and pull heavy hoses in a short amount of time. You do that over and over and all those things can take a toll.”
He knew he wanted to help others like himself – high-risk first responders.
“It just so happened that one of my co-workers knew of Vicki Burton-Taunton from the Shadows Foundation,” Burns said. “We needed free, in-depth heart checks, and not just what we get at our annual physicals and stress tests.”
Burns got testing ideas from organizers of a pilot program in Phoenix.
“I want to do something like this in Flagstaff,” he noted. “Vicki and I went to the hospital, and they put us in touch with Dr. Wani, and he was onboard 100 percent. The hospital was quite a big help financially.”
By March 2012, the Shadows Foundation had launched its new division, Hearts Worth Saving. This program provides free cardiac screenings for firefighters, police and emergency medical services personnel.
The foundation is based in Flagstaff and was founded in 2010 to help individuals and families who are affected by life threatening diseases and are in need of services and financial assistance.
“Patrick’s story is one of many in which young, seemingly in-shape first responders experience a heart attack or other heart-related episode,” said Burton-Taunton, president and founder of Shadows Foundation. “We need to make sure that those who save us are healthy.”
To date, more than 350 first responders have been screened, and the program is expanding farther into the Verde Valley and Prescott regions.
Screening through Hearts Worth Saving are facilitated through Boston Heart Diagnostics and administered locally by Dr. Omar Wani at Mountain Heart and Jason Wesley, M.D. at Verde Valley Medical Center.
“Patrick is the poster child for me to spread this message,” Dr. Wani noted. “We help them to understand it and do interventions by doing diet control, counseling for stopping nicotine, cutting down on carbohydrates and exercising more. Then if they don’t do well, then treating them with medication.”
The cost per screening is $200, paid for by donations from APS, Flagstaff Subaru and private donors, according to a Shadows Foundation press release.
Although many first responders have medical insurance, “unless they have issues, insurance will not cover the screenings we provide,” Burton-Taunton observed. “There is no insurance billing involved in this program; Shadows covers the screening.”
The customized screening panel, created by Dr. Wani, is an advanced lipid panel.
“It tells the size of cholesterol, the stickiness of cholesterol, in the context of genetics,” he explained.
The doctor said the program begins with a lecture, slides and the distribution of important medical literature. The counseling aspect of the screening includes measuring the bellies of first responders.
“They were not happy with me measuring their belly; firefighters are not supposed to have bellies,” Dr. Wani said. “We also educate them about smoking and chewing tobacco. It’s in their culture, to chew tobacco.”
According the Shadows Foundation website, the Hearts Worth Saving program was created due to the findings of a study on firefighters done by St. Joseph’s Hospital in Georgia that found that 75 percent of firefighters had heart attacks that occurred while on active duty. The study also concluded that increased risk of heart disease was caused by the unique combinations of genetics and a high-stress, dangerous work environment.
“The community owes them to keep them safe,” Dr. Wani said. “We look at the bio-chemical nature of their bodies, rather that just the stress test, which is small piece of the puzzle. That’s why I started this program. The focus is more on educating them that you have a risk factor despite having a normal stress test. It was a way for me to give back to them. Once we were very successful in Flagstaff, we extended down to Verde Valley.”
Screenings are available throughout the year to accommodate all first responders in Northern Arizona. Summit Fire Department, along with deputies from the Coconino County Sheriff’s Department, were among the first agencies to take part in the first screenings.
Today, the Hearts Worth Saving program has saved the life of Captain Patrick Burns. “It was an interesting couple of years,” he recalled. “After my second [heart attack], I had to be kind of nervous for several years. I had some anxiety attacks.” Burns said it is worth being in an occupation at high-risk for heart problems.
“I love my job. I feel great. I exercise every day. I race my mountain bike. I’m an occasional runner. I lift weights. Once a year, I get a check up with Dr. Wani. I take a medication every day, an anti-coagulant; it doesn’t allow platelets to stick together, and I take a low-dose aspirin every day.” FBN
By Betsey Bruner, FBN