When firefighter-EMT Scott McDowell lost his both legs—and nearly his life—to a mysterious infection last year, his small-town volunteer department, his employer, his paramedic school and his community pitched in with all the support they could muster. And today, against all odds, McDowell is back behind the wheel for the Montrose (Mich.) Township Fire Department (MTFD), with plans for the future.
A Life-Threatening Ordeal
McDowell’s ordeal began on May 22, 2011, when he became sick after doing some yard work. By that evening he felt so bad, he asked his wife take him to the local emergency department, where his condition worsened rapidly: His kidneys shut down, his liver showed signs of damage, and he lost consciousness due to brain swelling. Although doctors never pinpointed his ailment or its cause, they found indications of streptococcus meningitis, disseminated intravascular coagulation, and rhabdomyolysis (deterioration of muscle fibers into the bloodstream).
After days in the ICU, weeks in the hospital and treatments that included dialysis and steroids, McDowell was released to recover at home—but he returned to the hospital within two weeks, suffering from extreme pain. He was diagnosed with gaseous gangrene in both legs, a rare infection that could be fatal if it spread. So in July 2011, both of McDowell’s legs were amputated below the knee, and he was fitted with prosthetics.
He says of the days following the surgeries, “When I was lying in the hospital bed and thinking about the future, I never dreamed I’d see myself in turnout gear again. I just couldn’t have believed it.”
Back Behind the Wheel
Despite his disbelief, McDowell mastered walking and maneuvering with the prosthetics well enough to go back to work at the MTFD, starting out by operating the department’s radios. As soon as he was approved to drive, he eagerly took the wheel of the MTFD’s apparatus. “I love to drive,” he says enthusiastically. He also requested new prosthetic limbs that are durable enough to withstand the heat of the fireground—but until those have been officially approved for firefighting, McDowell is barred from entering burning buildings. In the meantime, “I have been in training simulators with [the prosthetics] and I had no issues,” he reports. He expects approval to come through soon.
He adds, “I can basically do anything now outside of going into the fire. I can continue to drive and run the pumps, and I’m able to do all the medical calls.”
When he’s not volunteering with the MTFD, McDowell works for Twin Township Ambulance in New Lothrop, Mich. “They’ve been huge supporters of me and my rehabilitation,” he says. He’s been working as an EMT, but this past October, he began working as a paramedic. He was halfway through the paramedic medical technician (PMT) program at McClaren Regional Hospital when he got sick. “The chances of my going back to finish were pretty slim, but [McClaren] said they’d cover the cost of the rest of the program if I came back, and they did.” McDowell credits instructor Jamie Kitchen with getting him through the final months of the program, and anticipates doing well as a PMT for Twin Township. (Note: The MTFD does not use paramedics.)
McDowell, who has two young daughters, says he couldn’t have made it through his recovery and life since the surgeries without the financial, emotional and spiritual support of others. “I’ve gotten a phenomenal amount of support from the fire department, the ambulance company and the community,” McDowell says. “Our local church has a prayer group where individuals are responsible for praying for individual firefighters. Well, they spread the word until I had people from out of state praying for my recovery. If I had just been ‘Joe Garbage Man,’ not a firefighter, there’s no way I would have received all the support I did.”
He is especially grateful for the support he gets from his fellow firefighters, who continue to check in with him. “Someone is always asking me if I’m OK or if I need help,” he says, adding with a laugh, “They do help me get my boots off, which is really difficult.”
McDowell says the #1 lesson he learned in the last year is that, “There’s no challenge you cannot overcome. Before this happened to me, I always thought everyone had a limit to what they could achieve. Now I believe that with the right support, you can do anything.”
Returning to work at the fire department was difficult, though. Firefighters who must take an extended leave due to injury or illness face the strangeness of returning to a familiar environment with unfamiliar feelings. “It’s really tough,” McDowell admits. “Everybody’s the same but you. Everyone’s doing the same thing, the procedures are the same, but you’re different.”
Personal issues will arise after returning from a lengthy leave, but McDowell stresses that they can be mitigated if you remember a couple key items: “You are in charge of your own rehab, and attitude is everything,” he says. “You have to rely on your support, and use your resources. In my case, the resources for amputees are growing every day.”
An Inspiration to Others
McDowell sees the good in his situation. “From something so tragic, so many great things have come out of this,” he says. He regularly advises new amputees in his area, visiting them while they’re still in the hospital and participating in a rehab program. “I go and talk to them, try to encourage them,” he says. “But mostly, when they see me walking around, and I have two prostheses—most of them have only one—and hear that I’m working for the fire department, they can’t believe it. It gives them hope for their own future.”
Undoubtedly, McDowell’s attitude, willpower and physical strength played a big part in getting him back on his new feet, working and volunteering for the MTFD. And he has set an example for others like him and his fellow firefighters; however, he stresses that he couldn’t have done it without many, many helping hands.