Freeport firefighters first in country to test cardiac pilot program

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FREEPORT — Local firefighters participating in a pilot program could help a South Freeport cardiologist find ways to predict the potential risk of heart attack, high cholesterol, early onset diabetes and sudden cardiac arrest.

Dr. Lowell Gerber developed the program that is being used to test nine members of the fire department and a handful of his regular patients. If the program is successful it would mean early detection for firefighters and other people at risk of sudden cardiac arrest or cardiac disease.

“Firefighters are like professional athletes, they go from zero to as fast as possible, they endure a lot of stress and have to perform in adverse conditions. The problem is no one gives them health and medical advice like athletes,” Gerber  said. “I want these men and women to be in the best shape they can be in order to help people in need, their fellow firefighters and themselves.”

The Microvolt T-Wave Alternans Test the departments are using amplifies variations that are not usually visible in the more traditional electrocardiogram tests. The measurement allows the doctor to evaluate electrical variations that are associated with abnormal heartbeats that could have missed otherwise.

Freeport fire chief Darryl Fournier met Gerber through the Rotary Club. They have been working together on this project for about six months.

Fournier said it was important to him to participate in the study and encouraged men and women of all shapes and sizes on the fire department to participate.

“It has been found that there is a high rate of heart attacks for fire service personnel across the country,” Fournier said. “It is critically important for us to find ways to correct the problem and take action. This testing program will help us do just that.”

Fournier, president of the New England Firefighters Association, said of the six career firefighters and 65 volunteers, nine will participate in the program.

Elizabeth Reeves, a per diem medic who recently finished the Firefighter I program in Freeport, was one of the nine to participate in the non-invasive diagnostic heart test. Reeves, a Brunswick resident and former New York City medic, said she is interested in medicine and has treated firefighters in the past.

“These are often big guys who like their steak and when the fire bell rings, that’s how they get their exercise, in a big burst of energy,” she said. “Treating firefighters is becoming a part of our culture and it’s interesting to be a part of the process.”

Reeves’ heart rate, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels were monitored during a rest period, while walking rapidly on the treadmill and after the test.

By gathering information on each patient’s lean muscle and fat content, fitness levels and the results of the stress tests, Gerber is trying to help determine an individual ‘s propensity to sudden heart attacks. He tests the heart’s electrical activity, the patients’ oxygen levels and their blood to determine who is more susceptible to sudden heart failure.

Based on the testing, Gerber said Reeves’ potential for sudden death was low.

“Insulin resistance and obesity also factor into sudden death and heart failure,” he said. “If we know what is going on earlier, we can attack the problems at an early stage.”

Gerber said after the patients participate in the initial tests, lab results will determine how to help each patient individually. The volunteers will meet again at three months, six months and one year.

“In addition to early detection, we want to teach people how to take better care of themselves,” he said. “We are working on both goals.”

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or aanderson@theforecaster.net

Sidebar Elements


Freeport medic and firefighter Elizabeth Reeves volunteers for a pilot program that would help with early detection of sudden heart failure. Reeves, left, is performing the test while clinical coordinator Jodi Davidson reads her metobolic results. The tests are performed at the office of Dr. Lowell Gerber in South Freeport.

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