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Local firefighter recovering after cyanide poisoning

News Photo by Julie Riddle His helmet resting on the hood of a fire truck, firefighter Matt Cohoon says he is eager to get back to fighting fires after he was exposed to cyanide at a recent fire on M-32 west of Lachine.

ALPENA — The last thing he remembers is someone offering him a doughnut.

The next few days are a blank for a Green Township firefighter who was poisoned with cyanide while fighting a fire in Alpena County two weeks ago.

Matt Cohoon, the 37-year-old chief of the Green Township Fire Department, was a mystery to doctors when he showed up at MidMichigan Medical Center-Alpena on March 16. A blood test revealed he had cyanide poisoning — a complication sometimes faced by firefighters as they work in the black smoke produced by burning plastics and other household products.

His health future is uncertain, and the poisonous gas has taken pieces of his memory.

Still, Cohoon said, it’s all just part of the job of a fireman.

News Photo by Julie Riddle At the Green Township Fire Hall on Tuesday, firefighter Matt Cohoon holds the turnout gear he wore at a recent fire on M-32, when he was exposed to cyanide, leaving him with seizures and memory loss.

His colleagues knew something was wrong as Cohoon slumped outside the burned home on M-32.

“It went from bad to worse real fast,” said Assistant Chief Tim Wade, who was at the fire.

Cyanide is a fast-acting, potentially deadly chemical given off during the burning of certain products, including paper, cotton, wool, and plastics.

The chemical is believed to be a contributing factor to thousands of deaths related to fire each year, according to the website firefighternation.com.

His partners were accustomed to Cohoon looking exhausted after giving his usual 110% at a fire, Wade said, but this was something else. Paramedics at the scene gave the fireman oxygen, but when he had a seizure, they hurried him to the hospital.

News Photo by Julie Riddle Green Township firefighter Matt Cohoon puts on turnout gear at the township fire hall on Tuesday. Cohoon is recovering from cyanide poisoning after a recent fire on M-32.

For the next few days, Cohoon had 20 to 30 seizures a day as doctors contemplated what to do with him.

They’d never experienced the condition before, they told his family.

Cohoon doesn’t remember hospital visits from family or being transferred, first into the intensive care unit and then to a Grand Rapids hospital.

Memory loss is a side effect of cyanide poisoning, he’s learned — and of the antidote given to counteract the poisoning. His memory is spotting, blacking out moments from two days or six months ago, and doctors aren’t sure if he’ll get those memories back.

He remembers the size of the needle doctors inserted in his stomach, Cohoon said cheerfully, describing his ordeal two weeks after it happened and spreading his hands to shoulder width.

News Photo by Julie Riddle Green Township firefighter Matt Cohoon puts on turnout gear at the township fire hall on Tuesday. Cohoon is recovering from cyanide poisoning after a recent fire on M-32.

“It was this big,” Wade teased him, holding thumb and pointer finger an inch apart.

The seizures are down to a few a day, but he can’t drive. As soon as he can, though, Cohoon wants to get back to fighting fires.

The fire that cost him his health is a good memory, if a hazy one. The crews managed to save most of the house and the homeowners’ belongings, which doesn’t always happen at a fire.

“That was a really good fire, other than what happened to me,” Cohoon said.

The support that’s been shown to the sickened firefighter has been phenomenal, Cohoon said. He’s gotten letters from around the state and texts and phone calls of thanks and good wishes.

After putting in nearly 20 years of working and training with the township, he wouldn’t dream of doing anything other than protecting the homes of his neighbors, Cohoon said.

He knows there may be risk again next time. But he signed up for this, Cohoon said. It’s what he wants to do, because people need his help.

Firefighting is a family affair, he said. His wife volunteers with the fire department, as do several in-laws, and several more family members are going to join soon.

When you’re young, you become a firefighter because you think it’s cool, Cohoon said.

“Now I’ve learned you can save one life, and it makes it all worthwhile,” Cohoon said. “There’s no better feeling.”

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