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February 4, 2009 > Second Chances: Newark Fire Chief's Story of Survival

Second Chances: Newark Fire Chief's Story of Survival

By Monica L. Barbara

It was a regular workday in September of 2007 when Demetrious Shaffer, Newark's Fire Chief, began to feel a little out of the ordinary. "It felt like I was having a heart attack," says Shaffer, "So, I took an aspirin." Shaffer, who admits to a high tolerance for pain, began to relax after the pain subsided. "I went about my day," he continues.

While things went about as usual for Shaffer on the outside, internally his right lung was having no such state of normalcy. Rather, Shaffer's lung had begun to collapse. Amazingly, it would take five weeks before Shaffer got the medical attention he needed.

Shaffer, a mere 37, works out several times a week, has served the Newark Fire Department as Chief for 3 1/2 years, and, prior to that, served for 15 years as the Battalion Chief of the Mountain View Fire Department. It is this very image of health and commitment to protecting others that may have, ironically, delayed Shaffer's seeking medical attention. "After years of being the rescuer, it's hard to be the one [being rescued]," says Shaffer.

For three weeks, Shaffer went about his regular routine but with the added difficulty of shallow breathing and pain. By the fourth week, Shaffer's symptoms took a temporary backseat, and he began to work out and run again. The fifth week brought greater difficulty breathing and pain, however, and Shaffer, at the constant urging of his wife, finally went to the doctor. A diagnosis shocked both Shaffer and the doctors. For five weeks, Shaffer had been fully functioning, albeit with great discomfort, with a right lung now completely collapsed.

Shaffer was immediately taken into emergency surgery, with the goal of inflating his right lung. "It had been down so long, they weren't sure," says Shaffer of the doctor's pre-surgery prognosis. And this was only the beginning. In a tense moment during the emergency surgery, Shaffer's life was in jeopardy. "At one point on the table during the emergency surgery I went totally out. No pulse. Nothing," says Shaffer.

A couple days later, the emergency surgery proved successful, and Shaffer's lung began to inflate. A second, lengthier, surgery followed, after which Shaffer remained in the hospitable with a tube supporting the remaining recovery and inflation of his lung. Shaffer continued his recovery at home for about a month and would have to wait another three months before resuming strenuous activities that make up his daily, professional routine. "I had breathing exercises and slowly started going on walks. I built up from there," says Shaffer.

Today, Shaffer has returned to the full range of activities he enjoyed before. "I'm in better shape today than I was when it happened," Shaffer maintains. This is good news for Newark as Shaffer plans to continue his work with the fire department. Says, Shaffer, "This is home to me."

What has been brought home to Shaffer is a crucial lesson. "Nobody should follow my lead with their response time to pain," says Shaffer who has been teaching CPR and other aid courses for years. "My wife was constantly telling me to go [to the doctor]. I wish I had sooner. Most people die within an hour because they are in denial about what's happening. If you have any thoughts, whatsoever, that something is wrong, call us. That's what we're here for," adds Shaffer.

It remains a mystery to Shaffer and his doctors as to why his lung collapsed in the first place, but Shaffer's now firm focus on seeking help immediately will likely assure that anything similar will never happen in the future. For his miraculous recovery Shaffer credits the Washington Hospital staff, "I wouldn't be alive if it wasn't for them," affirms Shaffer.

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