Surgeon Curtis Bryan and Firefighter Rob Day meet at Northside Hospital, where Day had open-heart surgery and had a titanium sternal plate implanted in his chest on March 18.
Pinellas Park Firefighter Rob Day only wanted to go back to work. Even though he had major open-heart surgery, all he could think about was getting back on the job. And thanks to a relatively new surgical procedure he was able to do just that.
His story began in March 2013 – March 9 to be exact. Day, 55, he remembers it well.
“It was a Saturday. I worked the day before carrying hoses up and down stairs and when I woke up, I was feeling more tired than normal,” he said. “I thought it was just because I was getting older and didn’t sleep well. After my shift was over, I came home and decided to cut the grass. I did the front yard and the back yard and was picking up sticks that had fallen from the pine tree.”
Then, Day said, he got a pain in his bicep.
“I was short of breath and at first I thought I had been bitten by something,” he said. “But after 10 minutes, it all went away. I never once experienced chest pain; I never once thought it might be a cardiac issue.”
What he thought didn’t matter much to his wife, Robin, a retired paramedic. When he told her what he had just experienced, her response was to the point, he said: “Are you crazy? We have to go to the hospital and get this looked at right away.”
“I thought it was nothing,” he added.
When they got to the hospital, Day underwent a variety of tests. It was then the doctor told him he had some sort of cardiac event and would have to stay in the hospital overnight. The next day he was told it would be another night in the hospital and on Monday he would have to have more tests.
He remembers waking up after those tests in the Cardiac Cath Lab.
“They gave me some medicine and I slept for about 20 minutes,” he said. “When I woke up, I asked the doctor how it came out. He told me he found five major blockages. He basically told me I’d had a heart attack and the only way to fix it was bypass surgery.”
For Day that was scary news.
“I teared up a bit and asked him if I could still be a fireman,” he said. “He said he didn’t see why not, but let’s see what happens.”
Day met his soon-to-be surgeon Dr. Curtis Bryan after he was transferred by ambulance to Northside Hospital.
Day had surgery on March 18 and he was discharged the following Friday. He spent a month at home recuperating, and then had to do cardiac rehabilitation for two months. He was cleared for full duty on July 9, four months to the day from his heart attack.
There is no question that firefighters have to do heavy, dangerous work. In another time, perhaps, Day would not have been able to return to work after such major heart surgery. But new procedures have made it possible.
“Normally after this type of surgery we would close the chest using sternal wire,” Dr. Bryan said. “But in this case we used a sternal plate, a very thin plate made of titanium and very strong. It is the same material orthopedic surgeons use to mend fractures. This one is designed for the chest.”
Bryan said the procedure of using the plate has been around for only five or six years. He said it is particularly popular for patients who have rigorous jobs or others who may be prone to breaking down after surgery.
“One of the goals we have in mind is not only prolonging the patient’s survival, but getting them back to a life equal to or better than before the procedure,” he said.
Bryan said it is true when patients say they feel stronger after the surgery than they did even before they got sick.
“After the surgery they are better than ever and stronger than ever,” he said. “Many patients feel they have an improved quality of life. The operation augments the flow of blood to the heart and the patients recognize it within a few days of getting home.”
Day’s wife agrees with that assessment.
“I know he is good and you can tell he feels better,” she said. “When we look back, we can tell he wasn’t himself. He was sleeping all the time and had no energy. Now we realize that he was sick and even though we’re both trained professionals, I guess you feel it could never happen to you.”
She said she’s as happy as her husband is that he is back at work.
“He drove me crazy being home all the time,” she said. “It is good. That’s what he likes to do and it makes him happy.”
Day is now back to work on full duty at Fire Station 33 on 82nd Avenue. He is finishing his 12th year with the Pinellas Park Fire Department. And as happy as he is to be back to work, there is something else about his recovery that makes him even happier.
“My dad passed away when I was 11, and when this happened to me my daughter, Myla, was 11,” he said. “You get a chance to think about things and the idea that I might not have been able to see her progress and see the things she wants to do, it was kind of tough sometimes. Now I know I’ll be here and I can hold her tight.”