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    A toll on the heart

    Police officers’ stressful jobs and sometimes poor habits have led to a frightening trend of heart attacks.

    [Times photos: John Pendygraft]
    Capt. Sam Diaz of the Tampa Police Department holds a before and after photograph of an artery near his heart that doctors opened with an angioplasty procedure.

    By MICHAEL SANDLER

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 3, 2001


    Sgt. Bob Weinhold could never decide between the stationary bike or the treadmill. So he used both at his Tampa Palms gym.

    He lifted weights with a cadet's vigor and chased a softball with zest, all so he could walk proudly in his Tampa Police Department uniform with a cigar dangling from his lips.

    "To look at him, you would think he was the epitome of health," said Sgt. Bob DuBose.

    Cpl. Steve Thurman, 47, undergoes an ultrasound during a health company screening as part of a cardiac rehabilitation program he will finish in July. Doctors say he had a stress-induced heart attack on Jan. 7.

    No wonder the news rippled through the department Christmas morning. Weinhold was dead from a heart attack at 47.

    "If it was a guy who was out of shape and had a history, it would have been different," said Officer Ken Yaksic, 34. "But he was a complete shock."

    Disbelief was soon followed by a frightening trend.

    Sgt. R.J. Reynolds, appointed in February to lead Weinhold's squad in New Tampa, suffered a severe heart attack in March.

    DuBose, Cpl. Steve Thurman and Detective Max Parker also suffered cardiac arrest, making five attacks in four months and at least 13 suffered by officers in the past two years.

    It caused such a stir, the department has considered hiring a private health organization to screen officers annually for signs of heart disease.

    "We get tied up in the job and forget that we are human beings," said Officer Rick Matthews.

    Most agree that police officers have a demanding job, a mix of boredom and high anxiety. Stress can play a role in heart attacks, often being the catalyst. But experts and police officers agree that heart trouble often hinges on institutional habits.

    Poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking and alcohol consumption add up to higher mortality rates. Officers are also working longer careers, many serving well into their 50s.

    The body sags and the bones creak, but an officer's pride is the last to go.

    "It's the old story, "It won't happen to me,' " said Reynolds, 50. "I want to live, and I want to take care of my body. That's the No. 1 priority in my life."

    Reynolds worked nearly half his 30-year career as a homicide detective. He was shot at by suspects, led the department's negotiations to free hostages and once climbed on the ledge of a building to talk a jumper out of suicide.

    But Reynolds smoked three packs a day. In otherwise glowing performance evaluations, his superiors several times recommended he lose weight. With a family history of heart trouble, the pain that surfaced in his shoulder blade on March 22 should not have been a surprise.

    "It felt like a stress knot," he told the doctor, who sent him home with muscle relaxers. Three days later, he rushed to Brandon Community Hospital and suffered a major attack standing in the lobby.

    The smoking caused such serious oxygen deprivation that he could not breathe properly. While unconscious, he pulled at the tubes that kept him alive. Doctors had to sedate him for 10 days to save his life. He finally woke up in April with metal stints inside his arteries to keep them from closing and 10 percent heart damage.

    "I was very fortunate to get a second chance at life," said Reynolds, who hasn't smoked since the heart attack, has lost 25 pounds and walks four to seven miles a day.

    Doctors told him he might not be so lucky next time. A second heart attack killed his father at age 57.

    "No matter what," he said, "I'm going to do my exercises and quit smoking."

    DuBose, 51, who leads one of two traffic squads, quit his pack-a-day habit in 1987. But on Feb. 5, he experienced a pain in his chest that felt like a sharp knife piercing his side.

    "When I talked to my doctor, he said a lot of people don't have pain," said DuBose. "They just die."

    The attack may have been brought on by job-related stress, he said. In recent weeks, he had worried for his motorcycle squad after a few spills resulted in minor injuries.

    But DuBose admits the damage had long been done. He had high cholesterol, doctors had previously warned. He spent years munching cheeseburgers and fries on breaks, often three times a week.

    "I am still not eating as well as I should," said DuBose, who now reaches for salads. "I go (for fast food) once in a while, but nothing like I was."

    Thurman never smoked a day in his life, rarely drinks and has the physique of a professional football player -- 6-foot-4, 250 pounds and hardly a hint of fat.

    Doctors said his heart attack on Jan. 7 was induced by stress. Thurman said administrative issues within the department have weighed heavily on him in recent years. He has not been back to work since.

    Coincidentally, Thurman has spent years teaching young officers about reducing stress at law enforcement academies and as an adjunct professor of criminal justice at Hillsborough Community College.

    "Most of them don't deal well with emotional issues," he said. "They keep everything internal. The stress of the job is like a steam kettle sitting on the stove."

    It is hard to say how much this phenomenon affects all public safety workers. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office has had only one known heart attack among law enforcement workers in the past year.

    "I think it's a vicious cycle," said John Vena, a Ph.D. and researcher at the State University of New York at Buffalo School of Medicine.

    Vena said officers often start their careers healthier than the general population. But over time, many adopt poor habits to cope with stress from the job.

    Vena and two colleagues found that the Buffalo Police Department faced a 20 percent higher risk of arteriosclerotic heart disease than the general population, and they published their findings in 1998 in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. In addition to heart disease, they found that officers faced higher rates of colon, kidney, liver and esophagus cancer, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide.

    "So they go from significantly lower to increasingly at risk," said Vena. "What we are trying to do now is see what factors are related and how you can intervene."

    The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office does not need a study to see the consequences. Of the nine officers who died in the line of duty during the past 11 years, four were killed by heart attacks.

    Jacksonville made a deal with Life Scan, a private health company based in Tampa, that allows deputies to be screened annually for cardiovascular disease, cancer and other medical problems. The cost will be about $300 per deputy.

    Representatives from the Tampa Police Department and Hillsborough Sheriff's Office recently met with the group. Deputy Chief John Bushell said the Tampa Police Department is very interested.

    Friends said Weinhold smoked cigars often and had learned his cholesterol was high just six months before his death.

    Officer Rick Matthews, 39, who spent eight of his 12 years working under Weinhold, said half the squad went to see doctors after his death.

    Dr. Stephen Glasser, a cardiologist in Tampa, said the screenings might help spot trouble. But real cures can only come with discipline.

    "The fact is, once you get these screening tests that are abnormal, they are too late," he said. "You need to stop these habits in your teens and 20s, not when you have the tests."

    Capt. Sam Diaz keeps two pictures on his desk. One shows his closed artery after a third heart attack. The other shows it after doctors unclogged it with a steel stint.

    Diaz, 55, smoked more than two packs a day and ate poorly. But three heart attacks in three years can change a man's perspective.

    "That's to remind me that no one is invincible," he said. "When I see someone chewing on a candy bar or smoking a cigarette, I say, "Gee whiz, if I had only known."'

    - Michael Sandler can be reached at (813) 226-3472.

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