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Jumping into the water


How blindness affects former town fire chief, family



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Heidi, Pat and Cody Heindl (click for larger version)

IF YOU GO What: Pig roast benefit for Lake Geneva Assistant Fire Chief Pat Heindl When: Tuesday, May 17, from 6 to 8 p.m. Where: Champs Bar and Grill, Main Street, Lake Geneva Why: To help offset the medical costs for Heindl, who recently lost his eyesight.
May 11, 2011 | 08:44 AM
Lake Geneva — We often take walking outside or going into a room lit by fluorescent lights for granted, but those two things are now painful for Pat Heindl.

"It feels like needles jabbing into my eyes," he said Wednesday, May 4, almost a month after something happened that changed the lives of him, his wife, Heidi, and their eighth-grade son, Cody.

Pat, 47, the assistant fire chief of the Lake Geneva Fire Department and former fire chief of the town of Linn, basically went blind Saturday, April 9.

He had been legally blind in his left eye since childhood. Pat said his left eye was "lazy." He never received the proper treatment for it.

"Everybody I talked to said it could have been corrected when I was a kid, but there's no correcting it now," Pat said.

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As for what caused the blood clot and vein occlusion behind his right eye, he said no one knows, but one doctor told him it's something usually diagnosed in people ages 70 and older.

"It's sort of rare I guess to happen to someone my age," Pat said.

Now, he can only see colors and movement — no detail. It means Pat can no longer run operations on the Fire Department.

He can't work at his carpentry job with Greenstone Builders. And at first, he and Cody weren't sure if they could carry out a family tradition.

Pat, who grew up in Zenda, is a third-generation firefighter. He said Cody will be fourth-generation.

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"We always talked about me training him," Pat said. "I was an instructor at Gateway, and my dad trained me. I wanted nothing more than to be the one who trains my son. I'll still be able to train him, but not to the extent that I wanted to."

Family history

Pat's grandfather, Lawrence, was assistant fire chief in Athens, Wis.

His father, Frank, also was a longtime Linn fire chief. His mother, Dolores, and his sister, Sue Kautz, are emergency medical technicians.

Pat is certified for both firefighting and EMT.

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Firefighting was much different when Pat was a child. He said there was a red telephone in their house and the houses of five or six firefighters who also lived in Zenda. A call on the red phone was a call for Pat's dad, who then summoned the rest of the department by pressing a button outside the house, which activated a siren on the roof.

"As I grew older, Dad would take me more and more to the firehouse," Pat said. "It was just something I grew to love."

It was such a passion that, when Pat was 17, he had completed his formalized firefighter training.

He graduated from Big Foot High School in 1982 and went to work for the Linn Fire Department that same year.

"When I was 18, I was already certified," Pat said.

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He obtained an associates degree in fire science at Madison Area Technical College, worked for the city of Fitchburg and came back to the Linn Fire Department after Frank retired.

In the late 1980s, Pat became fire chief. In the mid 2000s, he resigned and came to the Lake Geneva department.

Throughout Pat's career, Cody was never far behind.

"Cody has always been there with me," Pat said. "He was with me on training exercises, all these different events. I think he was feeling that Dad wouldn't be there anymore."

He said it hit both of them on the first visit to the Lake Geneva Fire Station after Pat went blind.

"I broke down and started crying really good because my son wanted to follow in my footsteps," Pat said. "(Cody) broke down, too."

During a telephone interview Thursday, May 5, Heidi said Pat has been Cody's hero and wants to follow in his father's footsteps.

"Cody has always dreamed of being on the Fire Department with his dad and I think his initial feelings after this were that's slipping away," she said.

But since then, according to Pat, Cody received reassurance from several people in firefighting services — from Lake Geneva Fire Chief Brent Connelly and Capt. Jon Peters to Bob Huff, the Chicago fire commissioner and friend of the Heindls.

"Capt. Peters and Connelly talked to Cody that day at the fire house," Pat said. "They reassured him he will be a part of this family. I think it was good for him because it was somebody other than Dad, who cannot see, reassuring him."

During a telephone interview Monday, Peters said he saw fire service is a big part of both the lives of Pat and Cody.

"I think Cody was fearful about his future in fire service," he said.

"His life was turned upside down, and Assistant Chief Heindl, fire service was his life, but firefighting is a brotherhood. Pat's always going to be a firefighter no matter what."

Heidi said she's proud of both Pat and Cody, and they know it will take time for them to figure out Pat's strengths.

"They'll do it," she said. "It's like learning how to swim and being afraid to jump into the water that first time."

From bad to OK

Heidi described how what happened to Pat seemed to turn their lives upside down.

They went from being a two-income family to relying on Heidi's job as a secretary at Traver School for money.

Regardless, she said Pat has maintained a positive outlook on the situation and Cody is understanding it better.

The hardest thing for them all has been learning what Pat no longer can do.

Heidi said one day, Cody said his father won't ever be able to see him play football. She said that may not be entirely true.

"I said Daddy will always see, no matter what," she said. "It may not be clear, it may not be what you and I see, but Daddy will always see.

"We'll help him with our words."

But already, Pat has overcome the limitations some may assume would restrict him.

Heidi said recently, she drove into Madison — something she had never done before.

She said Pat helped her navigate the unfamiliar streets.

"He counted the stop signs, whenever the car stopped," Heidi said.

"That's how he knew what street was where. He remembered from MATC. So then, you look at this, and you say, 'You know what? It's all going to be OK.'"

At least the Heindls haven't lost their sense of humor.

Heidi said Pat recently mowed his sister's lawn.

"We laughed because he said he only hit two trees," she said. "But she doesn't have many trees, which is the sad thing."

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