A year-and-a-half after having a complete heart transplant, Reece Chambers, a lieutenant with East Jefferson Fire Rescue, heard the tones for a structure fire down the road from the Chimacum Fire Station.
Hopping up into the cab of his fire truck, he was both excited and extremely nervous. This was the first structure fire he would be fighting since his surgery.
“I was so nervous,” he said. “I looked down at my heart and I said, ‘Let’s go, Kevin.’”
Kevin was the name of the man whose heart now beats unfailingly inside Chambers’ chest.
“I feel like he’s with me,” Chambers said. “There are two guys in this body, and we’re doing life together now.”
Chambers, who is 42, is the first firefighter in Washington state to have a heart transplant and pass the physical exam required to return to full-time firefighting.
Having worked for East Jefferson Fire Rescue since 2004, he has now been back in the line of duty for a month after a turbulent two years of medical leave.
Early on in his career, he was hospitalized with heart problems, but was able to make a recovery and continue working. But due to constant exposure to chemicals and smoke on the job, his heart problems worsened over time.
Chambers was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a condition that caused his heart to have trouble pumping blood like it’s supposed to, which in turn caused the heart to enlarge and weaken.
“At some point your heart is so large it can’t even pump at all, it just kind of quivers,” he said.
His arms and legs would lose feeling when he slept, he had shortness of breath and would faint if he stood up too fast. And after particularly intense calls at work, he would have relapses that called for hospital visits.
“I felt like crap all the time,” he said. “It was a miserable existence.”
But Chambers didn’t want to give up his dream job.
“I faked it for all the guys back then,” he said. “I didn’t want to be the weak link. I’d come to work and I’d do my best and then I’d come home and fall apart.”
Eventually, he was put on light duty. But when he couldn’t even sit at a desk and do paperwork anymore, doctors said he needed to be hospitalized and needed a heart transplant.
At the UW Medical Center, doctors prepared Chambers to be on life support while his name was added to the transplant waitlist.
“They don’t give transplants to people who won’t be dead within the next six months,” Chambers said.
According to the UW Medical Center website, since July of 2018 there were 38 people on the heart transplant waitlist. Since 2018, 84 people have received transplants.
Chambers was lucky: nearly 40 days after being put on the waitlist, he was getting prepped for surgery. Only 10% of people get a transplant after 30 days of waiting, according to the UW Medical Center. Seventy-three percent of people served at UW wait three years for a transplant.
As he was wheeled to the operation room, he high-fived his four kids who were there with him.
He and his family were excited, despite worrying about the intense surgery.
“I’m a fireman. I looked it up,” he said. “I saw what they were going to do and it’s brutal. But I was excited. I was so tired of being sick.”
Chambers went under as surgeons made an incision in his chest, separated his chest bone and opened his rib cage to begin the transplant. Removing his weakened heart, they sewed the donor heart into place, attaching the major blood vessels.
The heart, which began beating once the blood flow was restored, had belonged to a 42-year-old man named Kevin Irby. He had died just days before, according to his older sister Shana Irby. The cause of his death was unknown—he had stopped breathing mysteriously while taking a shower—but his body had been healthy enough for transplant.
Knowing her brother’s heart helped Chambers live didn’t soften the blow of losing her brother, Shana Irby said, but it was extremely meaningful.
“He had the kindest heart,” she said. “Genuinely all he wanted out of life was to help other people. This is what he would have wanted.”
Irby was a carpenter who built cabins, Shana said. He had two kids, who are now 7 and 3 years old. He was the youngest in the family, with three older sisters, and at the time of his death, lived with his parents in Yakima.
Chambers, who is now the same age Irby was when he died, said he feels a connection to his donor and has been in contact with the family.
“It’s a very complicated relationship,” he said. “We have this joy, but there is also this sorrow and tragedy. I lost my brother at a young age, so I feel like I can identify with the pain of losing someone before their time.”
Irby’s family was glad to know his donation was able to help not just Chambers, but other people in need of kidneys and other organs as well.
“We’re a family of faith, so we believe that when he was gone, he’s really not here anymore,” she said. “But knowing that my brother helped so many people, it doesn’t necessarily set us at ease, but it’s a blessing.”
Back to duty
With a new heart beating steadily in his chest, Chambers had his mind on one thing and one thing only: getting back to firefighting.
But recovering from a heart transplant is no small thing. And getting back in firefighting shape was an even larger battle.
“There’s in-shape and then there’s in firefighting shape,” said EJFR Chief Jim Walkowski.
Because Chambers’ heart condition was a direct result of exposure in his job, the Department of Labor and Industries paid for all his medical expenses. He also worked with L&I vocational rehab counselor John Janson to make goals to work toward.
“We had a Plan B and a Plan C for Reece to be able to still work with us, but in some other position,” Walkowski said. “But he only wanted Plan A.”
But before Chambers could start working on getting back into firefighting shape, he had to learn how to sit up and walk again.
“I don’t know if there are words to adequately capture the suffering you go through and the willpower it takes to recover from something like that,” he said.
Getting the strength to first sit up, then to walk, to run, to carry hoses, to climb stairs wearing weights and to eventually have a firefighter’s stamina took what felt like an excruciatingly long time.
In the meantime, Chambers also dealt with the emotional weight of having gone through such major health issues. He and his wife separated due to the stress. He had to go back to the hospital several times. He had nausea, headaches, and times when he thought he might quit. And the first time he took the physical examination to return to firefighting, he didn’t pass.
But despite the many setbacks, he kept working.
“I was so sick for so long,” he said. “I wanted my life back. I wanted to be the husband that my wife deserved. I wanted to be the dad my kids could be proud of. And I wanted to be the firefighter I had always dreamed of being.”
Finally, his work paid off. Now that he’s back on duty, Chief Walkowski said Chambers is better than ever at his job.
“It’s like Reece 2.0,” he said. “He’s back. Most of us have never seen him like this before.”
The heart that Chambers received combined with his determination to get back at work has him feeling better than ever—he says he’s more in shape than he was back when he was a 20-year-old.
Not only that, but even though he’s the same person, he feels the surgery transformed him.
“Obviously it changes you,” he said. “You examine yourself and your life when something that big happens. But I think it made me more of the guy I’ve always wanted to be.”