Hearts of Fire

Originally posted: December 18, 2006

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, January 15, 2007 – Few know the hearts of firefighters so literally as Skidmore exercise scientist Denise Smith. That’s because Smith, who holds the newly minted Class of 1961 Term Professorship, has spent the past thirteen years researching why heart attacks are the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths among firefighters—more deadly than burns and smoke inhalation.

Her interest was first kindled in 1991, during a summer research project with Sally Warner ’92 to compare physiological responses to traditional firefighting garb and to new state-of-the-art gear recommended by the National Fire Protection Agency for warding off smoke and flames. Fire companies across the country still consult the Smith-Warner findings.

Intrigued by firefighting as “an extreme model for studying the ability of the cardiovascular system to meet the demands of heavy, muscular work combined with severe thermal stress,” Smith and colleagues at the University of Illinois Fire ServiceInstitute went on to examine other potential heart-attack triggers lurking for firefighters in action: increased body temperature, profuse sweating, electrolyte imbalance, and changes in blood pressure and heart rate. Most recently, Smith has been probing deeper, studying the interactions between the endothelium that lines the blood vessels and the anticoagulant substances that affect the formation of heart-threatening blood clots.

“In theoretical terms, this research is right on the cutting edge of medical physiology, but it’s also applicable to real life,” says Smith, who studies actual firefighters in live-fire training as well as Skidmore students in her lab. Her team recently wrote new NFPA guidelines recommending “on-scene rehabilitation” breaks to cool and rehydrate firefighters at the scene, check their vital statistics—and perhaps save their lives.

No wonder Skidmore’s Class of 1961, led by Jacki Jung, Joan Horowitz Behr, Linda Brafman Berke, and Pamela White Leighton, is so delighted with the forty-fifth reunion gift they gave last June: a professorship that’s underwriting Smith’s teaching and research for the next five years.

The very idea of a class professorship—only the college’s second—”fit in perfectly with our giving goals,” says Behr. “We wanted to make an impact on students, foster faculty scholarship, and have a direct connection with where our money goes.” Classmates can look forward to visiting Smith’s lab, meeting her at alumni events, and, as Berke says, “sharing a sense of partnership as she moves forward with her research.”

And for their fiftieth reunion? “We plan to revel in our glory and accomplishment,” beams Leighton. “Because in my wildest dreams, I don’t know how we could top this!”

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