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Minnesota fire captain battling lung disease vows to advocate for fellow firefighters

Minnesota fire captain battling lung disease vows to advocate for fellow firefighters
Minnesota fire captain battling lung disease vows to advocate for fellow firefighters 04:40

ROCHESTER, Minn. -- A firefighter who's spent more than a decade helping others is facing a battle of his own. 

Walt Lindahl's ability to breathe has continued to worsen over the last two years. It's gotten to the point where doctors at Mayo Clinic are working to save the 53-year-old's life.

Walt and his wife Amy spent time together inside a Rochester apartment that's become home. The Bemidji paid on-call fire captain is battling severe lung disease, requiring oxygen to breathe.

"Anytime you're fighting fire there's danger. The inherent dangers are always there, unfortunately, and that's part of the risk you take serving your community," Walt said.

Walt spent 13 years with the Bemidji Fire Department, saying the role changed his life for the better.

"It was an honor," Walt said.

The risk that comes with the job lived in the back of their minds.

"At the time I probably thought more about the danger of him not getting out of a building," Amy said.

But that's as far as the worry extended.

"You see firefighters get sick and your heart breaks, you do what you can do to try to support that but, I just thought that won't happen to me. I'm in the gym, I'm healthy," Walt said.

By 2020, he was winded, and over time, he could no longer ignore the symptoms. It became clear while on a call of a bridge fire. 

"I got halfway out there, and I went to my knees. I ran out of breath, I knew I was in trouble," Walt said.

"How does my very active, healthy husband become so acutely, critically ill so fast?" Amy said.

Doctors believe his irreversible lung scarring is connected to his work as a firefighter. Writing in a letter: "It stands to reason that inhalation of hazardous materials and smoke over his career could have caused this condition."  

Walt and Amy Lindahl CBS

Still, insurance denied his worker's comp claim. He's contesting the denial. And through it all, he believes in the job.

"I wouldn't change anything. I've made things better in the community, I'd like to think I've made things better in the community," Walt said.

Walt's health stayed stable for some time. But in April, things went downhill, fast. The couple expected to go home to Bemidji after an appointment at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Instead, they were told staying in town was critical to Walt's survival.

"Scared, crushed, worried. I worry about my daughters a lot. I know they worry. Figure out what's important and what's not important right now and then still try to focus on am I going to live through this. Are they going to admit me, am I gonna win this battle," Walt said.

In mid-May, there is more news to process. Walt's condition is deteriorating. He would need to not just stay nearby, but live at the hospital while he waits for a double lung transplant.

"He said, 'We are now in an emergent situation. This is not gonna take a normal path of we got time. You're digressing again, slowly sliding back down a slope that we're not confident we're gonna be able to stop,'" Walt said.

"At one point it became very real to me that my husband could die, and I would be here by myself," Amy said.

They pack up to make Walt's move across the street, knowing staying at Mayo's Saint Marys campus is his best chance at more life. And while he contemplates his future, he thinks of others, sharing what's in his heart.

"Don't wait to tell somebody you love them," Walt said.

And he vows to help his brotherhood of firefighters.

"I've got unfinished business yet. I need to get through this, and I need to make sure and advocate for the rest of the brothers in this state," Walt said.

Amy will continue living nearby to be close to Walt.  A fund has been set up to help with expenses.

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