Augusta Fire Department Battalion Chief Chris Reid knew he had high cholesterol and triglyceride levels and has been trying to eat better. What surprised him was how far down the road he was toward developing diabetes.
“That was a shock to me,” the firefighter said as he concluded a consultation at University Hospital’s Heart & Vascular Institute.
The institute’s Heart Attack and Stroke Prevention program has offered screenings and sophisticated testing to firefighters to help them better understand where they stand with their risk factors and how to reduce them.
Cardiovascular disease is the biggest source of firefighter deaths in the United States. A study from 1995 to 2004 of 1,006 on-duty deaths found 43.7 percent were sudden-cardiac deaths.
“If you find it early enough, it gives them a head start on solving some issue that they may have,” Chief Chris James said.
A number of factors make firefighters a high-risk population, said Dr. Chris McElroy, a cholesterol specialist at University who is helping with the screening.
“They’ve got a stressful job,” McElroy said. “They usually don’t eat very well because they’re doing a lot of cooking for themselves. They’re under stress on the way there; they’re under stress during the thing; then they are decompressing on the way back.”
There is no warning of when a fire call will come, Reid said, so that can be particularly stressful while firefighters sleep during a 24-hour shift.
“It’s going from laying straight down to now I’m driving an emergency vehicle down the road,” he said. “We don’t get the warm-ups that people normally get. And it is hard on the body.”
Firehouses have been famous for food, often hearty and not all that healthful, but Reid said that is changing. When he started, “if you didn’t have something with gravy on it, it wasn’t a meal to eat,” Reid said. “Nowadays, we eat a whole lot healthier.”
On the latest shift, they baked chicken to make chicken salad sandwiches, he said.
“Ten years ago, that would have been fried chicken, rice and gravy and green beans,” Reid said.
Firefighters buy their own food, but the department has speakers talk to them about nutrition and it seems to be making a difference, James said.
“As we talk about it more, and the firefighters are aware of how better they can perform at their jobs if they are healthier, then some of the firefighters have taken it upon themselves to eat healthier,” he said.
The screenings are in addition to a city-sponsored annual physical at University that should provide a baseline to see how firefighters are doing year to year, James said.
“It’s just showing them where they stand,” McElroy said. “And it’s a lot more accurate way of predicting things. This shows us hopefully guys that have the stuff that is going to bite them down the road.”
In Reid’s case, it is a troubling pattern in particular cholesterol markers and in his glucose and insulin levels.
“If you’re not diabetic already, you’re heading down that road,” McElroy told him.
Reid left with prescriptions for a drug to help him control glucose levels and a statin to help with cholesterol, along with a packet of information he could give to his primary care provider. Reid was advised to cut out the carbs and to exercise as much as possible.
“Exercise is going to help this a lot,” McElroy said.
That the firefighters are getting this advice for free is great, James said.
“We truly thank University Hospital, the heart center, for providing the service,” he said. “It is very possible to save firefighters’ lives, and it is truly appreciated.”