Trent Ernst, Editor
Deputy Fire Chief Diana Vandale was awarded Firefighter of the Year at the Muscular Dystrophy Canada BC and Yukon Region Conference on October 15.
While the phrase “Firefighter of the Year,” may inspire visions of being on the most call-outs in a year, or rescuing the most cats from trees, this recognition is for a different type of heroics.
Vandale has been involved in fundraising for Muscular Dystrophy for many years. “I’m an advisor for the north, and have been chair, co-chair, and now a northern advisor since 1998,” she says. “For the last three years, I have been an advisor, which means that I talk to Northern Departments this side of Mackenzie and encourage them to raise funds for Muscular Dystrophy. Last year, for instance, I went to Chetwynd and spoke at their Fireman’s ball about Muscular Dystrophy.”
She was joined at the conference by Firefighter Doug Beale to accept the Fire Department of the year award on behalf of the Tumbler Ridge Fire Department.
Muscular Dystrophy is a neuromuscular disorder, or rather, disorders, as it is a group of related conditions. There are nine categories of muscular dystrophy, with more than 30 types. However, Muscular Dystrophy Canada supports people with other neuromuscular disorders. All in all, there are more than 150 diseases that weaken the body’s muscles that the society helps with.
The causes, symptoms, age of onset, severity and progression vary depending on the exact diagnosis and the individual. Symptoms include progressive muscle wasting, weakness, and loss of function. Common signs include poor balance with frequent falls, difficulty walking, limited range of movement, and drooping eyelids.
Most of these neuromuscular disorders are caused by genetic mutations. These mutations can be passed on from generation to generation, through a parent’s DNA, or they can occur in a single individual due to a spontaneous mutation, though some, like Myasthenia Gravis and Guillain-Barré Sndrome are autoimmune disorders.
While Muscular Dystrophy can affect anyone, it does tend to occur more in children. The most common type is Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) which typically affects males beginning around the age of four. DMD represents about half of all cases of Muscular Dystrophy and affects about one in 5,000 males at birth. Many die before they turn 20, though, says Vandale, as treatments become more advanced, survival rates are improving. “When I started, it was to support the children. Now people are living longer lives with MDS. That’s fabulous. But they require a lot of equipment. It’s a hard life, and it’s a lot of money to put out. MDS not only helps with the equipment, they are helping with the research, and they’ve been having fabulous results.”
There is no cure for Muscular Dystrophy, though scientists are researching gene therapy and how it can be applied to humans. One of the speakers at the conference spoke of some early results working with mice, says Vandale, which was extremely promising, but for most people, physical therapy, braces, and corrective surgery are needed. Others may need assisted ventilation to help breathing as the muscles that drive the lungs degenerate.
Since the department started fundraising for Muscular Dystrophy, they have raised over $100,000 for Muscular Dystrophy Canada. “That’s a fabulous achievement for such a small town,” says Vandale. “The residents of Tumbler Ridge have been amazing with their support. Without their donations, we wouldn’t be able to do the good work we do. Even with the hard times Tumbler has been going through, we raised more money this year with the Boot Drive than in the last five or six years. The generosity of this community is amazing. It’s not just my award, or the Firefighter’s award, it’s our community’s award.”
The connection between Muscular Dystrophy Canada and Firefighters goes back to 1954. Since then, Firefighters have become the society’s biggest supporter and largest fundraising arm. In Tumbler Ridge, says Vandale, the biggest fundraising activity is the Boot Drive, which happens every year during Grizfest, though they also sell shamrocks and have a donation jar at Shop Easy Foods.
The award was presented at the River Rock Casino in Richmond BC at the bi-annual Muscular Dystrophy Conference. In addition to going to the conference every two years, Vandale, as chair, also goes down a couple times a year for meetings, but the conference is the big event on the society’s calendar. “There are meetings and lots of different speakers,” she says. “Firefighters come from all over and talk about kids in their community who have MD, Doctors come and speak about the newest research. At night there is a banquet and awards given to fire departments. You learn a lot, and rejuvenate on fundraising.”
Vandale says this is the first time in at least thirty years that one department has one both Firefighter and Fire Department of the year, and the first time she’s won this award. “When I joined the fire department, I was told we raised money for MD. Since then, I have got more involved, becoming co-chair and then chair. Going down to the conference, you hear the stories of people who are affected by neuromuscular disorders and it touches your heart. I do this, because I am Hoping for a future where people with muscular dystrophy are able to survive. The people I meet at the conference are just so amazing. They are physically challenged, but their minds are so curious. It’s inspiring meeting these people, who want to charge ahead and have a good life.”
For more information, visit www.muscle.ca.