Fire Chief Suffering Chest Pains Stops to Rescue Car Crash Victim

Alaska fire chief  suffers heart attack after rescuing crash victim.
Joe Forness is recuperating from quintuple bypass surgery. Joe Forness

After saving the victim of a car crash, Joe Forness suffered a massive heart attack in the ER.

An Alaska fire chief had called for paramedics after experiencing sporadic pain in his torso. He didn't think it was a heart attack, but "I was in intense discomfort," Joe Forness said.

On the way to a hospital in Fairbanks, the rig's driver saw two vehicles in a ditch on the side of the road. "Looks like there's some people stuck up there," he called back to Forness, who was lying on a gurney. "I figured they needed more help than I did," he said. So they stopped to see what was going on.

A car and snowmobile had crashed into each other, and one person was seriously injured.

"So I got up off the gurney and went to work," Forness told "I changed hats from patient to medic." After helping to load the crash victim into the back of their wagon, he jumped in the passenger seat and they took off again.

At the hospital, after they wheeled in the stretcher, Forness was standing in the emergency room when he had a massive heart attack.

He felt nauseous. He felt pain down his arm. He felt like something had slammed into his chest. "The pain was like nothing you ever want to feel again," he said. 

He was later flown to Anchorage, where he underwent quintuple bypass surgery. He is 44.

Forness had thought he was in perfect health. But when he later spoke to the surgeon, he was told a genetic condition had caused his heart to give out.

Because he was adopted, Forness said he had no knowledge of his birth parents' medical histories.

He made light of rescuing the crash victim while he was having chest pains.

"It is what we do," he said.

He will be off work for at least 60 days, he said. Then he will return to light duty at the Nenana Fire Department, located about 55 miles southwest of Fairbanks, with a population of nearly 400 people.

His doctor told him that his initial chest pains were caused by his coronary arteries going into spasms. "That's why the pain came and went," he said. "I just thought it was gas, or maybe I had gallstones or something like that."

His post-op health regimen is pretty much the same as before his heart attack. "I already ate healthy. I always exercise," he said.

But now he has been warned against overdoing it or picking up heavy items, lest he pull out the long series of stitches bisecting his chest.

"It doesn't feel great," he said of the sutures. "But considering I could be dead now, it's good to have a little pain."

And for the most part, he said, "I feel pretty good now."