CHIMACUM — Lt. Reece Chambers of East Jefferson Fire Rescue has a lot of heart.
He’s now on his second one.
Chambers, 42, is believed to be the first firefighter in Washington state to return to front-line duty after receiving a heart transplant. He went back on Jan. 2.
“New heart, new start,” Chambers said Friday while working at the Chimacum fire station. “I get a new start at life.”
Chambers received the heart of Kevin Irby, 42, in 2018, after he was diagnosed first with cardiomyopathy — an enlarged heart — and six months later with heart failure.
Since then, Chambers has established a relationship with the Irby family, who live in Washington and California — Kevin’s parents, three older sisters and two sons — and is immensely grateful for Kevin’s heart.
“It’s a hard thing to walk through,” Chambers said. “All the things he gave me he lost. There’s so much joy in our relationship and there’s so much sad.
“I cherish that relationship, it’s really wonderful.”
Before receiving the heart, Chambers worked as much as his body would let him, until even light duty managing paperwork was too much.
“I pushed it as far as I could,” Chambers said. “It amazed me … I was doing what I’m supposed to do.
“My body didn’t even know what it was like to be healthy.”
Chambers had the surgery at the University of Washington Medical Center.
Chief Jim Walkowski of East Jefferson Fire Rescue (EFJR) said Chamber’s heart ailment was caused by exposure to certain materials while fighting house fires.
He explained that protective gear doesn’t protect firefighters from all hazardous materials, since some of their skin is exposed. He said that firefighters have high cancer rates because of that exposure.
Chambers said that every time he had symptoms that prompted a hospital visit, it was within two weeks of fighting a structure fire.
L&I paid for his medical expenses and walked him through the process of getting back to work, Janson said.
“That was a burden Reece didn’t need,” said Labor & Industry (L&I) vocational counselor John Janson. “Reece is such a positive guy.
“I’ve never met anyone like that. He had a goal and he was set on it.”
Chambers never faltered on his goal of coming back to service, Walkowsi said.
When Janson pointed out other options, Chambers would say, “I’m coming back to work,” Walkowski said.
After the end of a shift, Chambers went to the hospital with a complaint. This time they kept him and he had a heart transplant.
Chambers was happy when he went into surgery.
“I was excited and I was ready. I was so done with being sick,” Chambers said. “I remember wheeling down the hall high-fiving my kids. We were ready for this.”
His discharge 40 days later was only the beginning of a year-and-a-half journey.
Recovery strained his relationship with his then wife Trina to the point of divorce last fall.
“I have nothing but praise for my wife for what she had to endure,” Chambers said. “She needed to find peace and rest and I support that.”
He said the process of getting himself back into shape has allowed him to spend more time with his children: Jaden, 14; Kaia, 12; and Kingston and Isaiah, both 11.
“I am able to be the dad I want to be and that’s awesome,” Chambers said.
Chambers failed his first attempt to pass the re-entry test to rejoin the station. He changed his training practices, worked harder and passed the test on his second try.
Chambers said he’s now in better shape than he was in his 20s.
Chambers attributes a lot of his success in recovery to the support he received from Walkowski and other EJFR personnel.
“What attracted me to the fire service was the family that you get on this job and this place proved to be nothing but that,” Chambers said. “These guys and girls are brothers and sisters for sure. They were there for me.
“They were the consistent thing through the whole thing. This place has meant everything for me.”
His colleagues brought him food, cleaned his gutters and even gave him an iPad. Some went to his kid’s soccer match and made videos with FaceTime so he could watch, Chambers said.
Walkowski said they all wanted to make sure they were doing everything they could to help him.
“The most important thing is what happens to his health,” Walkowski said. “We’d be happy to have him back in any capacity. We were going to be against the odds.
“He pretty much amazed everybody,” the fire chief said.
“We didn’t get in his way. He was focused on Plan A: coming back to full capacity.”
On his first fire call after rejoining EJFR, Chambers said he jumped into the truck and looked at his heart, thinking: “Kevin, let’s go do this.”
“When I got done with that call, it felt really, really good. … I’m fully back and I’m capable and I’m not just back, I’m doing it.
“I don’t want to be the weak link, and I don’t want to be treated like that. …Since I’ve been back, I don’t think I’ve been the weak link.”
Kevin’s family is happy his heart went to someone who will continue to save lives.
Kevin died of respiratory failure of an unknown origin, said Shana Irby, Kevin’s older sister. His family found him on the ground not breathing and started cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). First responders were able to get a heartbeat, but a couple days later, doctors declared him to be brain dead due to lack of oxygen, she said.
“We think it’s amazing,” Shana said about Kevin’s heart going to an active first responder.
“For us, we’re just proponents for organ donation and my brother kind of struggled in life but he had a heart of gold and he just wanted to help people and help animals.
“I’m super, super happy for Reece and everything that has happened.”
Kevins organs have saved three other people who received his kidneys and liver, Shana said, adding that one kidney recipient was able to dance at his son’s wedding. Kevin’s corneas went to person with cornea blindness, she said.
“I could not be happier for Reece,” Shana said. “It’s heartbreaking for us but we’re just so thankful that [Kevin] was able to help other people.”
Shana credits Life Center Northwest with their being able to connect with most of the recipients of Kevin’s organs.
Chambers was working a 48-hour shift on Friday, and during the congratulatory event where he was telling his story, he was called out on a medical call on Marrowstone Island.
He apologized, ran out the door into the ambulance and drove off.
“You wouldn’t know he had a heart transplant,” Walkowski said after Chambers left.
“He’s the energizer bunny right now.
“It’s like Reece 2.0. He’s back.”
Jefferson County reporter Zach Jablonski can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 5, or at [email protected].