With Covid on backburner, Alexandria Fire Department focuses on health and wellness

(Left to right) Tony Washington, AFD’s deputy chief of health, safety and risk management, Dr. Asra Amin, AFD’s director of occupational health and wellness, firefighter Leslie Palucho, AFD Captain Warner Sherman and paramedic Jeff Woolsey outside Station 202 in Del Ray (staff photo by James Cullum)

Warner Sherman looked great, but his cholesterol was sky high.

Last year, the 62-year-old Alexandria Fire Department captain realized that he needed to take red meat out of his diet. The discovery might’ve just save his life, and was made after Sherman got blood work back from AFD’s health and wellness Station 202 at 212 E. Windsor Avenue in Del Ray. Since transitioning to chicken and turkey, Sherman’s lost 10 pounds and his cholesterol has been cut in half.

“A couple of months ago I had my bloodwork done, and they found my cholesterol was very high,” Sherman said. “Before my lab results, I was just eating steak and hamburgers. I love pork chops, but I had to cut them all out completely.”

For many AFD personnel, their only visit to the doctor is for mandatory work evaluations and physicals twice a year. Those visits allow AFD to track the healthy progress of 300 or so members, and additional offerings are now being included in the health screenings, like ultrasounds to detect cancer, blood testing and inoculations.

AFD started focusing on health and wellness in 2019, with the goal of curbing hypertension rates and improving the physical and mental health of these city employees who perform stressful jobs. But the pandemic in 2020 put the program on hold, as Station 202 became the epicenter for AFD’s covid tests and inoculations. Now with covid in the rearview mirror, the Department is picking up where it left off with its health and wellness program.

The most recently available data shows that there were 35 AFD personnel identified with stage 1 hypertension in 2020, and only 11 the following year, according to an AFD 2020-2021 annual report. The department also saw 13 employees with elevated hemoglobin in 2020, reduced to seven employees in 2021.

“The pandemic made us understand that we can do just about anything,” said Dr. Asra Amin, AFD’s director of occupational health and wellness. “It gave us time to reset, and now we’re back in full swing on how to focus on our members’ mental and physical fitness.”

Awareness is key to improving health outcomes, Amin said. The increased screenings ended up detecting a number of AFD employees with cancerous or precancerous tumors.

Amin said that AFD employees are working with her to develop workout, nutrition and health counseling plans.

“We’re also focusing on mental health,” she said. “We make referrals out to therapists and psychiatrists to help our members.”

Tony Washington, deputy chief of health, safety and risk management, said that every fire station is outfitted with gym and cardio equipment, and that AFD is now looking for personal trainers to work with employees at their respective stations and recruit school.

“You gotta remember back in the day, it was just a bunch of men, mainly men sitting around doing a manly job, and alcohol and smoking was accepted back then,” Washington said. “So there’s been incremental changes in the right direction. Now with the addition of our health and wellness specialists that we have, and the programs that we’re putting in place, we want to make sure that we keep the healthy firefighters healthy that come in, and that we increase the health of those that have been here.”