July 6 was Carl Dropka’s last day on the job as a firefighter in North Riverside. After 34 and a half years with the department, he was retiring.
He almost didn’t live to see the day. He can thank his shift colleagues he did.
Last September he was on vacation at his North Riverside home. A self-admitted “binge dieter,” Dropka was in the process of shedding a few extra pounds.
“Every couple of years I go on a binge diet,” he said. “I put on a vinyl sweat suit, ride the bike 15 miles and eat little. Corn on the cob and watermelon. I dropped 25 pounds, but I wasn’t feeling that great.”
At 7:30 in the morning, a Saturday, everything went black. Heart attack.
“I don’t remember the incident at all,” Dropka said last week, celebrating his 56th birthday. “The only recollection I have is I was walking down a white path of gravel stone. It had a lot of turns and at the top was a gold cross. It was kind of cartoonish.
“The next recollection I have is waking up in bed a week later in the hospital.”
Fire Chief Ken Rouleau was at home when he heard the call go out for the paramedics.
“I knew the address,” said Rouleau, who has known Dropka since the two were kids. They lived two blocks from each other in North Riverside and went to Riverside-Brookfield High School together. They double-dated as teenagers, and Rouleau stood up for Dropka at his wedding.
Dropka and Rouleau joined the fire department as full-timers the same year, 1977. Rouleau was No. 1 on the firefighters test. Dropka, who retired at the rank of lieutenant, was No. 2.
“Then the phone rang – I was already getting dressed and spent the rest of the day at the hospital until we knew he was stabilized,” Rouleau said.
Had Dropka not been on vacation that day, he would have been at work. When the call came in to the station, his shift was on duty.
Chris Kribales, Al Allen and Jason Williams responded. When they got there, they found former Fire Chief Dominic Salvino already there doing CPR; he had been called by Dropka’s wife.
“They told me that after they zapped me five times and got no [heart] rhythm they took me to Loyola,” said Dropka, who got a recap of the efforts to save him later on. “They worked on me three hours and two seconds before they were going to call me dead, they got a rhythm. Because I was out so long, they put my head on ice.”
Dropka was in a coma for three days.
“On the fourth day I opened one eye, and there was this male nurse waving at me,” Dropka said.
But it would be weeks before Dropka left the hospital, and that was to go to a rehab hospital, where he spent another six weeks. Initially, doctors told him he’d never walk again, said Dropka. Within two days at the rehab hospital he was up on a walker.
“I told them I wanted to get back on the job,” said Dropka. “I ended up having them bring in gear and an air tank and I simulated firefighter activities. The doctors released me for work.”
He returned to the firehouse in December. After 15 days on light duty he was back at it. But Dropka knew it was different now.
“I knew I wasn’t the same guy,” he said. “I was slower. The guys were glad to see me, but they were wondering, ‘How’s he going to be?’ My shift especially was more worried about me. It’s a young man’s job. It’s better left to younger guys.”
That’s coming from a firefighter who has seen some serious blazes. Dropka remembers his first call out – in Berwyn on an Easter Sunday, the huge Berwyn Lumber Yard fire. He was the initial scene commander at the Komarek School fire in the 1990s and at the Dominick’s roof collapse. He was also on the scene of a fire in Cicero that killed five children.
In May Dropka and his shift responded to three fires in one day – house fires in Berwyn and Broadview and a garage fire in Berwyn.
“The heart attack took too much out of me,” he said. “I said, ‘I just can’t do this anymore.'”
He used his accumulated sick time and took a month off, then walked away. Dropka still works part time for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, helping other departments write grants for federal assistance.
But he’s given up his unique health regimen for good.
“I tore up my vinyl suit,” he said. “And no more diets.”