In April, North Augusta Public Safety Director John Thomas received a call that changed his life.
His brother, who was 44, had died. His father also died at a young age.
“It got me thinking,” said Thomas, who is the oldest of three. “It really got my attention, and my wife and I talked about it.”
His wife, who works as the director of volunteer services at University Hospital, suggested he go to the hospital’s Heart & Vascular Institute to have a screening to determine his risks.
“I also talked with my sister and asked if she would be willing to do something,” he said. “I told her that my intentions were to be seen and have them run some tests to see if there were some things they could do. I knew going in with my family history that I have some of the risk factors, so I felt it would be beneficial for me to get a good look at some of these things.”
He went for a screening around August, and the results encouraged him to make some changes, he said.
“It was very apparent to me that I was eating all the wrong things and at bad times,” he said. “I had been a pretty good athlete, and I got away from that. I used to run all the time.”
When he was approached by the institute to bring the screening he had to his first responders, he didn’t hesitate to say “yes.”
“If we can save one person’s life by these screenings, then we have certainly done our best to keep something tragic from happening,” he said.
Earlier this month, the institute began visiting first responder agencies in North Augusta and Richmond and Columbia counties. The screenings also debuted the institute’s Smart Heart Mobile Screening Units, which will visit area business and community events like the mobile mammography units do, said Derek Dugan, the chief development officer of the University Hospital Health Care Foundation.
The screenings are being offered for free through the foundation’s Elaine Clark Smith Endowment. The endowment aims to promote cardiovascular health awareness and screenings.
Foundation officials wanted to offer the screenings to area first responders because of the staggering statistics involving first responders, especially firefighters, Dugan said.
“They are 300 times more likely to suffer a heart attack than the average person and that’s due to stress, diet and everything else that comes with the job,” he said.
The nature of first responders’ jobs can make it difficult to eat right or exercise regularly, said Thomas, who has been in the law enforcement field for 30 years.
“If you have ever been around a firefighter or police officer, you notice that they eat in a hurry because they know at any minute, the bell is going to ring and they have to go. So they swallow their food,” he said. “Fast food is also a big part of their diet and obviously, most fast food isn’t good for you.”
Screenings were held at North Augusta Public Safety’s station II on West Five Notch Road on Feb. 2 and Thursday. Each day, about 25 public safety employees participated.
“I’m very pleased with the turnout,” Thomas said. “We can’t make people do this, but we encourage people to change their lifestyle, change their habits and get involved in some sort of exercise program.”
The screenings included: measuring waist circumference, height, weight, BMI, blood pressure and blood sugar; blood work; a physical endurance test; plaque scan; and a review of the results.
“The importance of screening is that rather than waiting until an individual is affected by a heart attack or stroke or some acute event, we try to do those things necessary to identify those individuals, quantify their risks, to stratify their risks and rectify those things that put them at risk,” said Dr. Mac Andrew Bowman, a cardiologist and co-director of the heart attack and stroke prevention program at University Hospital.
Taking the step to have a screening done can make a big difference, he said.
“Heart attacks and strokes can be prevented in a majority of individuals, but it’s up to you to initiate the first step in the process. You have to have a screening done, you have to have your risk factors evaluated, and then you have to … do something about it,” he said.
Thomas has made several lifestyle changes. He eats more salads, chicken and fish instead of junk food, and he exercises regularly by walking or running at least six days a week.
“One of the things that has helped me is that my wife has been a partner in this with me,” he said.
Since he began making changes in August, he has lost between 15 and 20 pounds.
As the chief, he expects to set the example for his first responders.
“When the chief stands up and says, ‘I want to tell you a story,’ it hits home,” he said. “Some of those same guys at the screening were at my brother’s funeral. Nobody wants to see a loved one lost. They are my family, and I don’t want to lose any one of them.”