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Health & Fitness

I Made It: ‘I could have died in my front yard’

Published:   |   Updated: November 16, 2013 at 01:25 PM

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Rob Day, 43, Odessa

GOAL: Return to health and get back to work as a Pinellas Park firefighter after a heart attack.

WHY I DID IT: When I was 11, I lost my 35-year-old father to a cardiovascular stroke. I knew I was at risk for heart disease, but I felt and looked healthy. As a firefighter for 21 years, I still had the energy to pull long shifts at the Pinellas Park Fire Department. One Saturday in March, I was mowing the lawn when a searing pain shot down my left arm. I felt as though I was breathing through a coffee stir stick. My wife, Robin, a retired paramedic, rushed me to the hospital. Doctors found five blockages in three major arteries and said I needed a triple-bypass operation.

My first thought was, “Can I still be a fireman?” Ever since I was a small-town Georgia kid, I’ve thought it was the coolest job. I vowed to make a full recovery and get back to work. Even more importantly, I wanted to survive for Robin and our 11-year-old daughter, Myla.

HOW I DID IT: Since I work eight days a month as a paramedic at Northside Hospital, an HCA West Florida hospital, I knew its cardiac program was very good. Before the operation, Dr. Curtis Bryan did a full body risk assessment, and we talked about how strenuous my job was. After repairing my heart, he reconnected my sternum with a titanium plate, rather than wiring it back together. This way, my ribcage can withstand the pushing, pulling, twisting and turning I do every day. I rested for a month, then started light duty in April and returned to full duty in July.

HURDLES: Setting realistic goals is key. The first time my wife and I went grocery shopping after the surgery, I was taking little bitty steps to push the cart, trying to catch my breath. But within a few days, I got stronger. In order to restart full duty, I had to pass a stress test. That’s when my nerves really set in. Fortunately, I passed, and it was onto the next milestone — running calls at the station. Recently, we had a house fire where we had to pull the ceilings down and climb up in the attic. It was a bear to get through, but I didn’t feel fatigued at the end, as I would have before the surgery.

There were times during recovery when I felt bummed out, which is common after a major surgery. Fortunately, I have a great support network. The guys from the fire station called and visited me often. When you hit a bump in the road, having people to pick you up really helps.

GOING THE DISTANCE: Before the surgery, I slept during much of my free time. Now, I try to stay active — whether it’s fishing on the lake behind our house, riding my bike or taking my daughter to the mall and walking around. I’ve also started drinking more water, eating smaller portions and having a piece of fruit every day. I’m in the best shape I’ve been in 21 years. My goal is to run a marathon like the Gasparilla Distance Classic. What keeps me going is thinking about how fortunate I am to be around for my daughter.

BEST ADVICE: As a paramedic, I often share my story with patients, and tell them to take chest pain, shortness of breath and other heart attack symptoms seriously. The bottom line is to make your health a priority! I knew my cholesterol was up and that I needed to take control of my health, but I thought, I’ll get to it one day. As a cardiologist told me later, I was lucky. I could have died in my front yard. Lesson learned: You should never be too busy to take care of yourself.

I Made It is a regular feature highlighting individual health success stories and does not reflect the opinions of 4you, which encourages you to work with a physician or trained professional. To share your story, visit TBO.com, search Lost It; or email 4you@tampatrib.com; or mail to 4you, The Tampa Tribune, 200 S. Parker St., Tampa FL 33606.

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