The Winter Park firefighter is finding a new normal almost a year later.
They were words that Winter Park firefighter Jimm Walsh never wanted to hear in his life.
Lying on a stretcher in the back of an ambulance racing to Florida Hospital, Walsh overheard the two words spoken into a radio by an EMT at his side.
“He called me a ‘stroke alert,’ which is a term we use to let the hospital know that this person is probably having a stroke,” Walsh said. “‘We want you to get the operating room ready for him. Get everybody lined up, because we’re coming in with a bad call.’ They had to say that for me. … That was really tough to hear.”
Walsh remembers it all so clearly — what happened on Aug. 9, 2017 — how he suffered a hemorrhagic stroke in the middle of a staff meeting at the city’s public-safety building at the young age of 41.
It started with a headache and then it kept getting worse. The pain suddenly became unbearable. He tried to speak up, but his words were slurred. Walsh — who had spent his entire career learning the signs of a stroke as an EMT and paramedic — suddenly experienced those terrifying symptoms. Unable to speak and with limited movement, Walsh’s mind still raced.
“I knew that I was having a stroke,” Walsh said. “I didn’t want to think I was having a stroke. I didn’t want to believe I was having a stroke.
“Once I realized what it was and how quickly it was happening, I was just trying to figure out … am I calling too late?” he said. “Is there something to work with here? Are they going to be able to help me recover? I didn’t know how much damage was going to be done.”
Growing up, Walsh didn’t dream of fighting fires and racing through city streets in a fire engine. He actually dreamed of being a fighter pilot flying F-16s in the U.S. Air Force. He even attended a military high school in Melbourne when he was 14. But as Walsh soon found out, you have to have a plan B.
“I went there and everything, and it was a great opportunity, and I was flying airplanes,” he said. “When I was doing my flight physical my junior year, the surgeon — he just retired from the Air Force — he was asking me what I wanted to do. I was like, ‘I want to be an F-16 pilot,’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, what’s your plan B?’ I was like, ‘There is no plan B, sir.’ He goes, ‘Well, you’re probably going to be too tall.’ I’m like, ‘What?’”
It wasn’t long after when Walsh was able to delve into another interest — being a fire explorer at the Melbourne Fire Department. He then went to EMT school, followed by fire school at the Central Florida Emergency Services Institute. He signed up to become a volunteer firefighter in Osceola County to gain some experience and also trained to be a fire inspector. He assumed that position in January 1998 with the Winter Park Fire Rescue Department.
A year later, he became a firefighter, received paramedic training and discovered a passion for teaching firefighters as captain of training before landing his highest position as division chief — third-in-command over operations.
He also fondly remembers getting assigned to drive the ladder truck as an engineer.
Man, he loved that truck.
“It was the best part of my career; I can’t tell you how amazing it is being a paramedic on the ladder truck,” Walsh said. “You get to go to all the good calls. You get to do well for people. It was great.”
Road to Recovery
If there’s one thing Walsh is thankful for that day on Aug. 9, 2017, it’s that his ordeal happened in a room full of first-responders, who moved him quickly to the nearby hospital.
That sense of his brothers and sisters in the fire department being by his side would continue all throughout his recovery — and his pursuit of finding a new normal.
Walsh remembers that high-speed trip to the hospital, but nothing from the two-and-a-half to three weeks he spent there. After recovering from surgery, he began his journey toward rehabilitation at Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital in Jacksonville.
He finally came home Sept. 21 2017, with an escort from the fire chief and his fellow firefighters in the ladder truck.
“That day in August when I left for work — I left for work before my kids and wife even got up,” Walsh said. “I hadn’t been back since. I went from work to the hospital to Brooks and now coming home for the first time. It’s probably six or seven weeks after the stroke. My kids and wife saw me at Brooks and the hospital, but I hadn’t been home with them.”
His movement was initially limited to a wheelchair, but today, Walsh walks on his own, though with a slight limp and little movement in his right arm.
Walsh’s stroke ultimately forced him to retire June 1, after a 20-year career as a firefighter. His old turnout gear still sits in a box in his garage, and signs of his service — like a photograph of his prized ladder truck — still fill his house.
On a hot day in June, Walsh sits in the living room of his Windermere home and pulls out his phone. He scrolls through old photos and stops at a diagnostic image of his brain before his life-saving surgery. A blood clot the size of an orange can be seen in the black-and-white scan. There was no family history. No warning signs.
He’s thankful he’s alive.
The heart of a public servant beats strong in Walsh. A hemorrhagic stroke hasn’t kept the career firefighter away from his passion — today he’s teaching young firefighters at the Fire Rescue Institute at Valencia College. He recently had his first day teaching in a hands-on class.
“For me, it’s part of my recovery,” he said. “It’s a part of me. It’s challenging me to keep going. Teaching firefighters is definitely what I want to do, and I feel like I’m really good at it. It’s a way for me to continue to give back to the career that has given me so much.”
Walsh is thankful for so much today: How Winter Park Fire Rescue prepared his family’s home for Hurricane Irma while he was still recovering. How Winter Parkers came to visit him at the hospital. How he’s back with his wife and two children. How almost one year after he suffered the stroke, Walsh has a chance to walk his son to kindergarten.
Through it all, Walsh said the Winter Park community was always by his side — from the care packages and letters from residents to the close support from the department.
The moment Walsh fell into his darkest hour, the community caught him. They caught him and carried him and his family through the struggles. Through the fire. In that moment, the public servant became the served — grateful beyond measure.
“It’s hard to articulate how much it meant to me and to my family to know that Winter Park and its people and citizens were always there for us,” Walsh said. “It’s been amazing. The support has been amazing. … It’s hard to process that. I spent my career doing that for other people. It’s amazing they’ve been there for me and my family.”
“I’ve never been alone,” he said. “My family’s never been alone. People were there for us — that’s how it’s supposed to be.”