Two hearts beat as one: Fire marshals in Kannapolis reflect on health scares

Published 12:03 am Wednesday, February 8, 2023

KANNAPOLIS — Shane Pethel and Don Gray of the Kannapolis Fire Department can’t help but make jokes about whatever comes to them.

But there was a moment in their lives when things were not as jolly as they are now. Pethel had a heart attack in 2018 and Gray suffered one in 2021. The one silver lining  is the valuable lessons they have learned about their health.

Pethel, 58, had his heart attack when he was 54. He has worked with the Kannapolis Fire Department in some capacity since 1987. He became an inspector in 2000 and was named fire marshal a few years ago. Back in the late 1990s, Pethel took part in an educational clown troupe, where he traveled around the country performing and giving the values of fire safety. He was even trained by Barnum & Bailey circus clowns. “We had a lot of fun,” Pethel said.

In the summer of 2018, Pethel was setting up fireworks in Village Park for an event. When he began to sweat and feel a sharp pain in his back, he lay down thinking he had pulled a muscle. He wasn’t cooling off when his arms started to tingle. He actually drove himself and another co-worker around to their starting point to see if he would feel better there.

“Once we got there, I knew something was wrong. I thought, ‘OK, this is not easing up. This is not going away,’ ” Pethel said.

He was then driven to the hospital where he was diagnosed with a heart attack. Doctors put in a stent and Pethel left the hospital two days later.

“From Friday to Tuesday, I’m push mowing the backyard. I almost laid in the grass outside to try and mess with my wife, but I thought, ‘That’s not going to be funny,’ ” Pethel said.

He did not have a history of heart problems, but had dizzy spells and sharp pains at least two years before the attack.

“I just put it off as old age, but I think that was the sign it was telling me something’s getting ready to happen,” he said.

His doctors informed him he had a 99.9 percent blockage on the right artery. Since then, he has been trying to get his diet back on track, do moderate daily exercises and continue to meet with his cardiologist. Everything is “all good now,” he says. He takes Tylenol and just one other medication to treat his heart.

Gray, 54, was 52 when his heart attack occurred on Oct. 15, 2021. He is now the deputy fire marshal in Kannapolis, but started out as a rookie in the department 10 years ago. Gray originally worked in architecture and construction, but the sliding economy made him look at other options.

“Economic conditions made me change careers. I couldn’t afford a midlife crisis, I had a midlife career change. … Being 44 years old and trying to keep up with 18-year-old rookies was tough,” Gray said.

That October day, he had just completed the department’s annual firefighter agility test, basically “an obstacle course for firefighters.” Afterwards, he started to have back pain, and was thinking it was a kidney stone. The pain then progressed to his chest. EMS made it to the scene, hooked up Gray to a heart monitor, and that was when they realized he was having a heart attack.

Gray went to the hospital and was going to have a stent put in just like Pethel, but when his doctor investigated further, he found something unexpected.

“I remember him saying, ‘I see your blockage. It’s in your LAD artery.’ Which is considered the widow maker. He said, ‘You have 100 percent blockage.’ I paused a second and I said, ‘Doctor, did you say 100 percent?’ and he said, ‘Yes.’ And when he said that I went out. At that point, I coded. They had to perform CPR on me, I’m not sure how long they did CPR on me. They shocked me eight times and thankfully they got me back on that eighth try.”

Gray woke up the next day feeling “like a pin cushion. It’s all kinds of stuff sticking out of me. Everywhere!” Even though his condition was more serious than Pethel’s, Gray also left the hospital two days later and was back at work in two weeks. Gray’s family on his father’s side has a history of heart problems. Before his heart attack, Gray had elevated cholesterol and blood pressure, but he’s helped combat that with diet and exercise.

“Since I got promoted and was no longer on the firetruck where I could work out on shift, my diet and exercise dwindled off as I came to work with the fire marshal’s office. So I didn’t make as much time to work out like I used to and it caught up with me,” Gray said.

Gray’s diet has changed. He eats less fried food and more fruits, vegetables and lean meats. Everything is fine with his heart now, with no immediate issues. He knows how badly it could have gone that day.

“Had I not been where I was at — I was at the fire station — had I not been surrounded by all the firefighters that had been trained to handle cardiac emergencies, had EMS not shown up quickly to help me get transported with the medications on board, had I not been the right place right time surrounded by the right people, I’d have died,” Gray said.

Gray and Pethel can both look back on what happened with a sense of enlightenment on how an experiences like theirs can change your outlook on life.

“It strengthens your faith, it strengthens the relationships you have with your family, friends, co-workers. It gives you a little bit more lightheartedness because I’m not taking things seriously as I used to,” Gray said.

“You don’t take life for granted anymore. I retire in 16 months and I think God kept me around to be a babysitter for my daughter because she’s got five kids,” Pethel said.

They both advised that people get checked and stay on top of any symptoms that they may have. Both consider themselves lucky that they were surrounded by trained professionals when having their heart attacks. They shared the story of former Kannapolis Fire Chief Rick Barnhardt, who had a heart attack alone at his home and died.

Gray and Pethel are doing their best to make sure they are healthy so they can be there for their friends and family in the years to come.

“I left work that morning and I told my wife, ‘Hey, I’m going to go run the agility test today.’ On my way out the door, her joke to me was, ‘Hey, don’t have a heart attack.’ Yeah, she has apologized to me several times,” Gray said. These days, the laughter is part of what keeps these two men in good spirits, and looking toward a long future ahead.