Patrick Burns

Firefighter Patrick Burns was accustomed to caring for those in need; he was not, however, used to being the one who needing to be rescued. Hearing the piercing sound of the sirens as he felt the ambulance begin to move, Patrick had no idea just how in need he was of medical care. He wasn’t sure what was wrong, but he knew his chest hurt and he knew Flagstaff Medical Center was the best place for him to be. 

By the age of 41, Patrick Burns, a fireman with Summit Fire Department, had 10 years of service under his helmet. Muscular and toned, he also served as the crew’s fitness program coordinator, organizing workouts and healthy habits. “I was proud of my physical condition, and like most men my age, I figured I was too young and in too good of shape to worry about a heart attack,” Patrick said. “I had no idea my family history was working against me and I would be the one relying on Flagstaff Medical Center to save my life.”

It began with a dull pain in his stomach. Thinking it was just a stomach bug or too much Thanksgiving food, Patrick went on with his normal routine, taking some time to relax later in the afternoon. Patrick felt fine the next morning and agreed to join his wife, Anita, for an easy run through their rural neighborhood. They were less than a mile from the house when the pain came, this time more intense. “It took my breath away,” he said. “I doubled over and dropped to one knee.”

Neither Patrick nor Anita had their cell phones and Anita didn’t want to leave Patrick to go for help. Fortunately, a truck stopped and the driver called 911. Within minutes the fire department arrived – the very department where Patrick was scheduled to work. “The irony is I took a vacation day, while the crew I usually work with was on duty. I was afraid the guys would arrive on scene and I’d look like a fool.” But everyone rallied when they saw Patrick, “It’s one of our own.”

The paramedics from Summit Fire and Guardian Medical Transport (GMT) assessed Patrick and determined he was having a heart attack. Still in denial, reality hit when Patrick heard, “Upgrade to Delta,” which means a patient is critical - lights and siren needed. Anita ran home to settle their two girls, nine and 12 years old, and drive to the hospital to meet Patrick.

Designated a Cardiac Arrest Center, the Cardiac Arrest Team was waiting for Patrick when he arrived; within minutes Anita arrived to be with her husband and didn’t leave his side. “On TV, people look through peepholes in the hospital doors, but not at FMC - they wanted me right there, holding Patrick’s hand; they knew he needed me to be with him,” Anita said.

After several tests and a cocktail of medications to preserve heart function, Patrick was taken to the Cardiac Catheterization Lab. “A stent was inserted through the femoral artery to feed the left anterior ventricle,” said Patrick who has since become an educated force on heart disease. “There was a 60-percent blockage in that vessel in my heart.”

Preaching the message: Get screened for heart disease
Two days later, Patrick was released from the hospital to start his recovery. With measured goals and success, the zealous fireman returned to work two months later with a new outlook and a message: Get screened for heart disease and know your family history. Today, Patrick and Anita are telling their story, “I promote heart screenings at work, at my church group and to my neighbors and friends. Know your family history.”

Since returning to work, two firefighters have had screenings and found heart trouble before it found them. “Heart attack is the number one killer of firemen,” Patrick tells fellow firefighters. “You can’t just assume you are healthy; you need to do more than exercise and eat well; you need to be screened for heart disease and risk factors.”

Omar Wani, M.D., interventional cardiologist at the Heart & Vascular Center of Northern Arizona suggests Patrick is the poster child for heart screenings. “People will look at someone like him, and maybe, for the first time, think if it could happen to a guy like that, then it could happen to me,” said Dr. Wani. “It’s important to assess the stress levels at your job, home and work. And most importantly, know your family genetics and get screened for potential heart problems.”

When Patrick asked Dr. Wani about heart concerns for Anita and their daughters, Dr. Wani emphatically answered, “Heart disease kills more women than anything else, but the symptoms are harder to detect. Screenings and a family history are just as important for women.”