A heart in the right place: Front Royal man with disability spends his time helping others

Thomas Arsenault has needed a heart transplant for 11 years, but still manages to volunteer his time to help the Front Royal Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department. Lewis Millholland/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – Thomas Arsenault had his first heart attack in 1996 and another, more critical attack two days later. He’s been on the University of Virginia Health System’s heart transplant waitlist for 4 1/2 years.

Despite everything, he’s managed to carve out a niche serving the Front Royal Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department.

Arsenault now leads the department’s membership committee. He works to bring new members into the fold and to keep current members active. A few times a week he comes into the station to grab the latest stack of membership applications in manila envelopes; rifling through a pile of these, Arsenault can rattle off members’ age, occupation and member status.

“That’s ’cause I’ve talked on the phone with them, doing phone interviews and stuff,” he said. “When the background check comes in I will call them up, talk to them in detail, you know, interview them more. Because I have to give the say-so up at the meeting, as to, ‘Do we accept them?’ Favorable or unfavorable.”

Arsenault carries a satchel with him wherever he goes. It contains the battery and controller for his LVAD  – left ventricular assist device, a mechanical pump surgically attached to his heart that helps it pump more blood for less effort.

“This runs everything,” Arsenault said, patting his satchel. Without it, “I have no heartbeat, no pulse detectable.”

A tube runs from the controller up into his stomach and to the LVAD, and he wears sweatpants to prevent the tube from being crushed or shifted by more rigid pants. Because of the special dressing kit securing the tubing to his body, showering now takes an hour every day.

It’s unclear how long it will take for a heart transplant to become available. The University of Virginia Medical Center website estimates the average wait time as one to three years, but that range can stretch higher and higher if no heart turns up.

“Unfortunately, someone has to die for me to live,” Arsenault said. “I’ve made peace with God. If he says tomorrow, ‘You’re gone,’ I’m gone. There’s nothing I can do about it. It doesn’t bother me no more. I got to live to be almost 62, so it doesn’t bother me.”

Arsenault fell into depression when he had his last major heart attack and he was told he couldn’t work anymore. Physical difficulties aside, he found it hard to do anything. It took two years before “reality set in,” as Arsenault said, and he made himself find things to do, like household chores, woodworking, and metal detecting.

He found out that there are specific rules for operating a metal detector in Warren County. Through a neighbor, Arsenault met Harry “Junior” Kisner, parks and recreation maintenance supervisor, and between discussing metal detecting regulations and playing bingo together at the fire station on Fridays the two developed a friendship.

Kisner, a fire department member, got to talking with Arsenault one night. “What are you doing?” Arsenault remembers Kisner asking him.

“Nothing, I got nothing to do,” Arsenault responded.

“Well,” Kisner said, “How about I get you an application, and you fill it out and you’ll become an associate member? Why not help us out with bingo and fundraisers and stuff like that?”

Arsenault was on board. He was voted on as a probationary member in the beginning of 2016 and was voted in as a full member after six months, at first focusing his efforts on fire department  fundraisers before being asked to head the membership committee.

Arsenault took to the new role immediately. “Now I’m very active in the membership aspect of it, trying to get more people involved. I’d like to see more kids come down here, become junior members, we could always use them,” he said.

He emphasized that the fire department doesn’t only need volunteers who can rush into burning buildings.

“There are plenty of people out there like me with a disability, you know, or don’t work or are retired that are probably looking for something to do,” he said. “With all our fire departments, we’re always looking for people to volunteer. It could be for anything … they’re always looking for administrative help, too. Secretaries and memberships and stuff like that.”

All money from fundraisers goes to buy “nice, neat, wonderful things” for the firefighters, Arsenault said, like new masks, helmets, tanks, tires and oil changes for the vehicles.

While Arsenault’s condition is largely under control and he says it doesn’t interfere with his work for the fire department, especially because he can do most of his work from home, he’s learned to expect the unexpected. On Monday morning Arsenault woke up drenched in blood from a “massive” nosebleed. He was taken to the ER for five hours where medics were able to staunch the flow by “shov(ing) a giant tampon up my nose.”

Still, Arsenault said that wasn’t the worst way he’s woken up because of his heart.

“This scared the crap out of me one night,” Arsenault said, tapping the LVAD controller in the satchel on his hip. “The alarms went off on it. What had happened was I dehydrated and my blood flow was too low and so the alarms go off.

“I was purple. No color, looked like a ghost is the way it was described,” he said. As per doctor’s orders, Arsenault drank Gatorade and ate something high in salt while calling up the hospital and reading off statistics from the LVAD display.

As long as he’s feeling healthy enough, Arsenault attends bingo on the second floor of the Front Royal fire station every Friday night. He rides the elevator up, but can manage taking the stairs back down.

Arsenault said he believes anybody, regardless of disability, can find a way to serve their community.

“The primary purpose of what we’re doing here is to let people know that you have a handicap and whatnot, or you don’t have a handicap, or you’re a kid, is get active in public service,” Arsenault said. “Become active in it. And you might find it, you might enjoy it, you might like it.”