BEDFORD, Texas — Daniel Stewart has seen a lot of things in his 15 years driving an ambulance and fighting fires, but he never expected he’d be the one laying in the back of the ambulance until a day last summer he’ll never forget.

“We were out here training,” said Stewart, walking outside of his fire station in Bedford and pointing to the yard. “We were in our full bunker gear and we were out here working in the yard.”

Stewart said everything seemed fine until he started taking his gear off. He says at first he thought he was just having some acid reflux or something that was causing discomfort in his chest, but the symptoms just kept getting worse — and eerily familiar.

That’s when the Bedford firefighter got into the back of his own ambulance with his partner and started powering up their heart monitor.

“I was sweating so much I had to get my partner to help get the leads on me,” said Stewart.

One look at the screen on the device and Stewart says it was very clear to him what was happening—at only 47 years old, he was having a heart attack.

“I told these guys I needed some help,” said Stewart, motioning to his teammates in the fire station.

Stewart was transported to Texas Health HEB, the same hospital where his wife works as a nurse and had just left for the day. She quickly returned to see to his safety. Luckily for the Stewarts, the quick action of Daniel and his teammates meant doctors were able to get his situation under control fast and make the save on the long-time lifesaver.

That’s not always the case in his field of work, where it seems heart attacks like Stewart’s aren’t all that uncommon, nor are they uncommon for someone as young as him.

“The average age for a firefighter [having a heart attack] is actually 49, compared to the average population, which is up at 66,” said Dr. Venkatesan Vidi, the chest pain medical director at Texas Health HEB.

Dr. Vidi says there’s no doubt in the data—first responders, especially firefighters, are prone to heart attacks and general cardio issues at a much younger age than the rest of the population; nearly 20 years younger. Add to it the data from the National Fire Protection Association shows in the past 10 years, 43% of on-duty firefighter deaths are cardiac emergency related.

So, why first responders?

“I think first responders and firefighters more specifically, it’s a hazardous occupation,” said Dr. Vidi.

The jobs often require heavy lifting in intense conditions, stressful situations and long hours that are only growing longer, in many cases, as departments across the country struggle to fill open positions. 

Dr. Vidi said he’s seen the situation worse in first responders who smoke or have struggles with obesity. He said he believes that departments and regulators need to pursue stronger health standards for their first responders to lessen the risks of cardiac incidents that seem to come naturally with the work.

Stewart said he’s using his experience to encourage his teammates to watch their health closer; something he is now doing in recovery.

“Low-sodium diet, several different blood pressure medications,” Stewart said, going through his new normal.

However, the longtime firefighter said he’s happy to make those small changes. After the quick action that day, he was able to recover, get back to work and begin a healthier lifestyle for his self and his family.

Stewart credits his team and his job, stressful as it may be, for the save, though.

“If I hadn’t been here, I wouldn’t be alive. There’s no doubt,” said Stewart.