Gil: “I owe my life to the fire service and will be eternally grateful to The Fire Fighters Charity”

Retired on-call firefighter Gil Schaeffer received our support – both for rehabilitation, as well as with his family - after having a life-saving heart operation.

Gil Schaeffer became an on-call firefighter with West Sussex FRS in 2005 at the age of 43, alongside his job as a gardener at the time.

Here, in his own words, he shares his story and how we supported him during a challenging time with his health…

“In my early 20s I lived in London, and had always fancied being a firefighter. So, when I saw they were recruiting, I applied. There were around 2,000 applicants going for two vacancies. When I didn’t get short-listed, I thought I’d missed my chance.

“Years later, when I’d moved down to West Sussex and started a family, I saw that my local station was recruiting for retained firefighters. I was a self-employed gardener that worked locally. I lived within the required four minutes attendance time, and I could provide the amount of cover that was needed, so I ticked all the boxes. I got my wife’s blessing and I went for it. I passed all the medicals and at the age of 43, I got in.

“My reasons for joining were to challenge myself, and give something back to my community.  My wife and I have four children and I wanted to make them proud, and I hoped it would instil in them similar values.

“Being ‘retained’ is a special privilege, as there is high likelihood that we will attend friends, family and neighbours in their time of need. That was never more clearly brought home, than when in the early hours one morning, we attended an RTC where the casualty’s brother and father were on our pump.

“After completing my probation, I was asked if I’d consider driving the appliances, which I jumped at. It was during the routine medical to get my HGV licence that my doctor discovered I had a heart condition.

“My Occupational Health Officer was contacted and informed, and I was immediately taken off the run. We were told that the wait, to have it investigated, could be as long as six months on the NHS. Without hesitancy, my Brigade paid for me to have a private consultation the next day, at which I was told I needed heart surgery right away. It basically saved my life.

“I now have a pig’s valve and 10cm length of synthetic aorta. My surgeon told me afterwards, that my aorta could have ripped off at any time, and I would have bled out, internally, in less than a minute.

“After surgery, I learned of The Fire Fighters Charity’s facilities that were available to both my family and myself, for recovery and rehabilitation.

“When I was able, my wife and I took our four young kids to Harcombe House in Devon for a week, around 2008, to just relax and come to terms with my new situation. It’s a beautiful facility and we really enjoyed going for walks and using the pool and spending time together.

“It had been a difficult time, and we all benefitted from that break. My kids had most likely been freaking out, so some quality time together was needed.

“A couple of weeks later, I went back there to have two weeks of intense and tailor-made physiotherapy, which set me well on the road to both my physical and mental recovery.

“It was nice meeting other people there, all within the service, and we could swap stories and reassure each other. I was then given exercises to take home, which were really helpful because I had several months of recovery still from then on.

“Within six months I was passed ‘fit’ and back on the run, and I did a further seven years fire service. I even got my HGV licence, and made the swift water rescue crew.

“I owe my life to the fire service and will be eternally grateful for what The Fire Fighters Charity did to aid my recovery. Knowing it’s there for me for the rest of my life is such a huge reassurance.

“I can’t thank you enough for being there for us”

Gil Schaeffer

“Not long after getting back on the run, I did the Great Wall of China trek with the Charity and I met loads of other men and women firefighters from all over the country, many of whom I’m still in contact with today.

“I always go back up to my station on Car Wash days to help out, and I make a monthly donation by direct debit too – whatever you can do to support this amazing Charity, I’d encourage anyone to do.

“Joining the Fire Brigade was one of the best things I have ever done, and through it I’ve made friends for life. Only we really know what it is that we do when we attend, and I can’t thank you enough for being there for us.”

If you feel you’d benefit from our health and wellbeing support, you can call our Support Line on 0800 389 8820, make an enquiry online or visit the ‘Access Support’ tab in My Fire Fighters Charity.

And remember – if you’re feeling suicidal, you can call our Crisis Line 24 hours a day on 0300 373 0896.