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Protecting the Hearts of Those Who Protect Us 

Bryan Heisinger, a firefighter with the Verde Valley Fire District, recognized a good idea when it presented itself. 

Last year, just after going through his mandatory annual physical and stress test, he knew he needed to do more to protect his heart health. 

“It was more preventative; we have a heart history in my family,” said the 37-year-old firefighter. “I decided to do the full panel and see where we were. I wanted to get more in-depth information about my cholesterol numbers.” 

Heisinger was in luck; a program originating in Flagstaff, Hearts Worth Saving, had expanded to the Verde Valley and Prescott regions four years previously. 

Designed to combat heart disease by offering those in high-stress jobs, such as police officers, firefighters and other first responders, free cardiac screenings, more than 350 first responders have so far been screened.  

Today, Heisinger is in good health and has learned to watch his diet. 

“Inflammation is the biggest thing; a lot of the foods you eat can cause inflammation,” he said. 

In March 2012, the Hearts Worth Saving program was launched as a new division of the Shadows Foundation, a non-profit organization started in 2010 to help individuals and families who are affected by life threatening diseases and are in need of services and financial assistance.                  

Screenings through the cardiac program are facilitated through Boston Heart Diagnostics and administered by Jason Wesley, M.D., at Verde Valley Medical Center, and by Dr. Omar Wani at Mountain Heart in Flagstaff. The cost per screening is $200, paid for by donations from APS, Flagstaff Subaru and private donors, according to a Shadows Foundation press release.                                                                                        The genesis of Hearts Worth Saving came in Flagstaff when Patrick Burns, a physically fit firefighter with Summit Fire Department, had a heart attack in 2009 while running with his wife. Burns, 41 years old at the time, had just passed his firefighter physical and stress test that year, but what those tests did not reveal was a family history of heart disease. An emergency medical team rushed him to Flagstaff Medical Center, where he recovered.

After suffering a second heart attack in 2011, also while exercising, he connected with Shadows Foundation founder Vicki Burton-Taunton to develop the Hearts Worth Saving program.

He has become a staunch advocate for cardiac screenings.                                          

“I started doing research on firefighters and heart attacks,” he said. “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.

“There were no warning signs that would tell me I had a heart condition,” said Burns, 50, who has been in fire service since 1996. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something; it happened to me twice. I’m going to do something to help others.’ It just so happened that one of my co-workers knew of Vicki from Shadows Foundation. We need full, in-depth heart checks and not just what we get at our annual physicals.” 

Burns said there was a “really good turnout” for the first screenings under the program when more than 100 first responders showed up voluntarily.

“Patrick’s story is one of many in which young, seemingly in-shape first responders experience a heart attack or other heart-related episode,” Burton-Taunton said. “In developing this comprehensive cardiac screening, we hope to not only detect heart disease in this high-risk population, but educate them to look into their family’s medical histories and be cognizant of their lifestyle choices. Prevention is just as important as detection, and we hope this program continues to grow and protect those who protect us.”

Dr. Jason Wesley, medical director of Verde Valley Medical Clinic Occupational Medicine since 2014, said the health facility contracts with Verde Valley Fire, Cottonwood Fire, Sedona Fire, Copper Canyon Fire and Verde Valley Ambulance Company to perform yearly physicals.

“Helping to improve the health of these men and women has been very gratifying; it’s one of the best parts of my job,” Dr. Wesley said. “There are definitely first responders who would benefit from advanced lipid panel testing and cardiac screening. A simple lipid panel is performed on all of the firefighters I examine, but sometimes I wish I had the information advanced lipid panel testing provides. I generally let those firefighters I feel would benefit from this test know about it, but it’s up to them to reach out to Shadows Foundation to get the screening performed and scheduled.”

The screenings, which are voluntary, take about 30 to 45 minutes to complete.

“This is after they’ve had their blood drawn some days before their visit with me,” Wesley explained. “We go over the results of the blood work in detail and review an EKG done in the clinic just prior to the visit with me.”                                        

Heisinger’s boss at Verde Valley Fire District, Fire Chief Nazih Hazime, has become the liaison and advocate in efforts to promote the program across the Verde Valley.

“My next approach is reaching out to all first responding agencies and their point person responsible for their health and wellness programs,” Hazime said. “It’s a very generous program through the Shadows Foundation to identify heart problems of firefighters so they can live a long, prosperous life with their families.”

The need for such a program in the Verde Valley and Prescott areas was great. “We had not been offered such a test as long as I’ve been in the fire service,” said Hazime, who has been in fire service for 34 years and will retire soon. “The research and history have proven to be successful in saving lives. Early detection is the key. Every month, I give a report to my board of how many firefighters died in the line of duty and how. Seventy-five to 80 percent are health related and most are related to cardiac failure.”                                             

The procedure is an easy one for first responders. “Simply fill out a form, schedule the blood work, and a first consultation with the doctor – all for free,” he added.                                                                                           

Despite the simplicity of the process, there have been some difficulties getting first responders in the Verde Valley and Prescott areas to volunteer for screenings through the program. 

“My guess is this is because of the fear of the unknown and what the test may discover,” Hazime said. “I also believe there may be a fear of punitive actions by the employers. The bottom line is, this is a great tool for early detection and prevention of cardiac and cholesterol disorders. In addition, it is confidential between the doctor and patient. The only thing the employer does is offer the program to the employee.” 

Although many first responders have medical insurance, “unless they have issues, insurance will not cover the screenings we provide,” Burton-Taunton said. “There is no insurance billing involved in this program; Shadows covers the screening.” 

Many people definitely take their health for granted, Wesley noted, “although it seems that this is changing.” 

The Hearts Worth Saving program may have saved the life of Captain Patrick Burns.

“It was an interesting couple of years,” Burns recalled. “After my second one, I had to be kind of nervous for several years. I had some anxiety attacks.”

Burns believes it is worth the risk for heart problems being in a job he loves. “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.” QCBN 


 By Betsey Bruner, QCBN  



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