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You Don’t Know What Good Feels Like – An Interview with Kevin Quinn

By: Luke Vandermeer

There’s no question that firefighters are a tough breed. It’s a requirement of the job if they’re going to save the day and a life. However, firefighters aren’t machines, and even if they were, the toughest machines in the world need tune-ups from time to time. So why would firefighters think they don’t? 

Meet Kevin Quinn, a volunteer firefighter in his 45th year of service in Rhode Island. Alongside his frontline duties, Kevin is the interim CEO of the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), a non-profit membership association that focuses on the interests of the volunteer firefighters, EMS and rescue services in America. Check them out at www.nvfc.org for fantastic resources that you may not have known you needed.

We had the pleasure of “sitting down” with Kevin to hear his incredible, eye opening story about why it’s important to take time for yourself.

Kevin has been a major advocate for firefighter’s health for years, but in 2016 his efforts to save people were forced to turn inward. Though he didn’t see it coming, it was time to save himself, and it all started with a physical exam that had been put off for the better part of his 45-year career.

Are you putting off your health?

Physicals aren’t a popular topic with firefighters. Much like Robert Duvall’s explanation in Days of Thunder on making history if you get a race car driver to a funeral before they’re dead, historically, firefighters and the medical profession aren’t exactly the best of buds. Without going into the discussion that there are those of us who would just rather not know if something’s up in our bodies, the lack of firehouse funding in some areas of the country greatly deters check-ups from being a regular thing. In a country where a full physical can cost up to $1,200.00 per person, a budget as low as $6,500.00 per year for the entire team doesn’t begin to cover the basic costs of a yearly physical for each firefighter.

When Kevin first got the call from a fellow fire chief to get a modified physical exam that fits the requirements of firefighting standards, he wasn’t exactly excited about the prospect. It was July, Rhode Island was experiencing its long-awaited summer weather and he wasn’t looking forward to hopping on a plane with a medical check being the high point of a visit to North Carolina. Still, the fact that the check was just over $200.00 as opposed to the $1,200.00 some people were paying, peaked his interest.

After getting the physical over with, Kevin was in a meeting before heading home, when a knock on the door led to him standing outside with the doctor where a new reality started for him. Though he felt fine enough, he needed further testing to rule out a potentially serious cardiac issue. Kevin asked if it was necessary to be taken to the hospital then and there, and when the answer was no, the bad news didn’t seem so bad. He was fine. Couldn’t be serious. Back to business.

When Kevin was pulled out of the meeting a second time to discuss the urgency of his situation, the issue started to feel more real. Within days Kevin was told that he needed a quadruple bypass heart surgery. Cardiac issues are “the leading root cause of firefighter death” according to our discussion with Kevin, and less than five years ago he was in danger of unknowingly adding to that statistic.

Thankfully the surgery was a success and (as is a hard-working firefighter’s nature) after three months of rehabilitation he was back on active service.

Getting back on track is harder than you think

Kevin has never forgotten something he was told by the doctor in charge of his heart surgery; it was a line that changed his life. “You don’t know what good feels like until I change out your vessels.” He hadn’t felt sick, no chest pain or any common symptoms of heart problems. Still, he could have been an hour away from a massive heart attack without even knowing it, and he credits the physical with saving his life. 

The question is, how many firefighters out there could be just like Kevin without knowing it?

Many firefighters begin their career young, full of energy and the feeling that nothing can stop them. Hell, they’re heroes! No need to get checked, that can wait for later in life. Though here’s a question going back to the comparison to machines – if you buy a car and plan on driving it 25,000 miles in a year, would you get regular oil changes or let it wait for later in its life? Hopefully it’s the former and not the latter. 

Are you comfortable putting your own body to that test?

Going back to the movie Days of Thunder for a minute, Michael Rooker’s character Rowdy Burns had a leaking blood vessel in his brain after a serious crash. For a while he refused examination or treatment, until finally his condition worsened to the point that his friend forced him to get checked. Once he found out what was happening inside, he had a life-saving surgery. And that was with symptoms! In some situations, ignorance unfortunately isn’t bliss if you look at the long road.

Touching on Kevin’s story again, when Covid-19 hit it was the first time in his career that at his wife’s request he backed away from responding to calls. Everyone was scared, the virus was an unknown, and with his prior condition, the risk was great. It was devastating to him to have to sit out and it took its toll. When he replaced his broken scale in June 2020,  it showed he had gained 19 pounds in three months, and that was another eye-opener. To him it was a worse moment than hearing he needed a bypass surgery. He felt ashamed but determined. Since then, Kevin has lost over 30 pounds, is in the best shape of his life, and credits it all to making the hard choice of paying attention to his health even when he didn’t want to.

In America there have been more than 127 Covid-related firefighter deaths since the pandemic began due to patient transfer of the virus. If we don’t know what’s going on in our bodies when we take that call how can we know how Covid will affect us? It’s a scary notion, but it’s a scary world at the moment.

Kevin puts it well. “How do we get the everyday brother or sister firefighter to realize, even early when they’re starting out, that they need to take care of themselves? We know they can take care of others.” 

His opinion on how to do so? Be selfish. A little anyways. Do what you need to do to pay attention to how your body is really doing.

Need a place to start? The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) has a very helpful guide that you can look up at https://www.iafc.org/topics-and-tools/resources/resource/healthcare-providers-guide-to-firefighter-physicals.

Maybe we’re not all that different from race cars, race drivers or any other machine. Without regular maintenance nothing’s in for the long haul. Long story short, sometimes “drive on” isn’t the best option when putting the key in, even if the engine did start again today.

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