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Health scare emphasizes life’s priorities for South Elgin Fire Chief Cluchey

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Updated: February 25, 2014 6:08AM

SOUTH ELGIN — Every day at 4:30 p.m., an alarm goes off in Joe Cluchey’s office, reminding him to check his daily goal’s status — whether he’s made a positive impact on three lives by 5 p.m. each day.

Cluchey, 51, chief of the South Elgin Fire Protection District, doesn’t take that commitment lightly. That is part of why he has been working to make a positive impact on the community for the past 33 years.

“This job gave you the best chance to do that and see the results instantly,” Cluchey said of his years with the department.

On Feb. 28, he announced to the fire district board last week, he will begin making a positive impact on the state, too. Cluchey said he will be retiring from the department and taking a part-time job with MABAS (Mutual Aid Box Alarm System) — Illinois.

The new job allows him to retain health insurance, while also maintaining time with his family and in the community, Cluchey said.

“It is like marrying off a child — someone that you have helped to raise and nurture — and turning them over to someone else. You hope your DNA prevails,” Cluchey said this week of leaving the department he has led since October 2002.

Cluchey was 18 and a senior at Larkin High School in Elgin when he first began working for the South Elgin fire district as a paid-on-call firefighter. He went to a fire call on his second day with the department — basically staying out of the way of the more-experienced firefighters and helping to run lines to the blaze.

But with an acute health scare this past fall, a new work opportunity, and other changes in South Elgin, Cluchey decided it was time to retire.

Family first

Those changes include the death Nov. 1 of longtime South Elgin village president Jim Hansen, and Village Manager Larry Jones announcing his own plans to retire this spring.

“This means Larry and I are going to the golf course and head in every direction” — east, west, north and south, Cluchey said. “We have been friends for a very, very long time.”

He also plans to spend more time with his family, including wife, Karen, and a new grandchild.

Family always should come first, Cluchey said, but with his job, sometimes he couldn’t do that.

Cluchey doesn’t like talking about the acute health scare that developed beginning Labor Day weekend but that also shaped his decision to retire now.

The story begins in 1996, when a roof collapse during a fire left Cluchey with neck damage. He continued to have back and neck problems over the years, but had pain treatment while putting off surgery.

Then in 2010, Cluchey decided to run the Chicago Marathon. Neck pain kept his training runs to no more than four miles at a time. He finished the run — “I beat the guy with the broom” — but with more damage from 6½ hours of pounding the pavement.

On Labor Day weekend while sitting at a South Elgin High School football game, his damaged neck disc failed. He left the game in pain.

The days that followed included CT scans, powerful narcotics for the pain, and eventual surgery at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Cluchey doesn’t remember stretches of days — from Aug. 31 to Sept. 10 — because of those massive narcotics to keep the pain at bay.

Cluchey woke up in Rush on Sept. 10, told he had just come out of getting a cadaver disc to replace his C7 T1 disc. The surgeon said the disc was so damaged that it came out in pieces.

The medications, however, had backed up Cluchey’s colon. While waiting to talk to doctors one last time before being discharged on Sept. 13 — Friday the 13th — Cluchey could feel something was very wrong.

His bowels had just perforated, and he was going into septic shock.

If he hadn’t still been at Rush, doctors told Cluchey, he likely would have died.

There were times during the next few days that he wanted to die with the pain that wracked his insides, Cluchey said. His blood pressure raced up and down, and he was touch-and-go for 48 hours.

Then, on Sept. 16, he woke up and the worst of the sepsis that was invading his body was gone. Still, Cluchey remained off-duty until mid-November, and he had to undergo additional surgery on Dec. 17 to clean up his still-damaged intestines.

Return to work

His doctors didn’t want him back at work until Jan. 17, but Cluchey returned on Jan. 6 to light duty.

He had begun considering retirement last year, with an eye on the state’s pension changes, Cluchey said. His original plan was to look at retiring in another year — about when his youngest son would graduate from high school.

The health scare changed that, in part because Cluchey wants to enjoy his retirement.

His own father retired while already facing Lou Gehrig’s Disease and never got to enjoy his final years, Cluchey said.

“I didn’t want to be that guy,” Cluchey said. “My wife has made so many sacrifices because of my career.”

The greatest gift he can give his family is his time, Cluchey said, and his near-death experience opened his eyes to that fact.

“God was sending me a message,” Cluchey said. “I just wish he hadn’t yelled so loud.”

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