Fla. firefighter/medic blinded, debilitated after cardiac arrest finds support from coworkers
Broward County firefighter and paramedic Eric DeLotta suffered three heart attacks and faces years of rehabilitation
By Ron Hurtibise
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
BROWARD COUNTY, Fla. — Longtime Broward County firefighter and paramedic Eric DeLotta has spent his career rescuing people in trouble and helping to train his colleagues.
Earlier this month, it was DeLotta, 57, who needed to be rescued, and now he’s leaning on Broward’s fire-rescue brotherhood for support during his long road to recovery from a debilitating health setback.
The man who excelled in a job that requires peak physical conditioning and razor-sharp awareness now finds himself almost totally blind and unable to walk, get out of bed, or even dial a phone on his own, according to his wife, Renee DeLotta. He’s going to need at least two years of rehabilitation, a fellow paramedic said Sunday.
DeLotta started his career as a volunteer firefighter when he was 16. He worked in fire departments in Cooper City, Belle Glade and Pembroke Park before moving into Broward County Fire and Rescue when it absorbed Pembroke Park’s fire department in 1999.
Over the past two decades, he’s been a flight medic in the Broward Sheriff’s Office’s Aviation Unit. During that time, he has trained and mentored countless numbers of young recruits, father-in-law Tom Giarritta said.
“In all the years I’ve known him, I’ve never heard him turn down a chance to help someone,” Giarritta said. “It’s just the kind of guy he is.”
On May 1, DeLotta was rushed to the hospital after suffering shortness of breath and going into cardiac arrest. One of the paramedics who responded to the 911 call had been one of his trainees a decade ago, Giarritta said.
After first responders got his pulse back, they loaded him into an ambulance to take him to the hospital, but on the way, his heart stopped again.
He suffered a third cardiac arrest in the hospital emergency department, then spent 11 days on a ventilator, his wife said.
“We didn’t know if he was going to wake up or not,” Renee DeLotta said. “The doctor didn’t think he was going to make it. But he did.”
It’s still unknown what caused his heart to stop, she said. He tested negative for COVID and had been fine since suffering some “heart issues” 15 years ago.
DeLotta remains at Memorial Regional Hospital South in Hollywood, where he greets a steady stream of visitors, including daughters Amy, 19, and Katie, 23.
Among his visitors are longtime colleagues as well as firefighters and paramedics who might not have known him well, but were well aware of his stature within the fire-rescue community, said Ray Briant, a BSO Fire Rescue battalion chief.
“He’s a go-to guy within our agency,” Briant said. “He’s top tier as far as skill sets because he can provide deeper-level training and has qualifications that makes him a great and valuable asset.”
DeLotta is known for his “big personality,” Briant said. “He’s the first to volunteer (for an assignment) in a vocal way: ‘I’m on it, chief!’ ‘Don’t worry about us!’” He would say it in a way that would make you laugh, but you understood that he understood the assignment.”
DeLotta’s fearlessness has earned him accolades throughout his career.
In 1999, he was recognized during National Emergency Medical Services Week for his leadership after a tanker truck rolled over on Interstate 95 in Hallandale Beach and spilled gasoline all over the highway. Cars were driving through the fuel, oblivious to the danger of a possible fire, the Miami Herald reported later.
Under DeLotta’s leadership, his Pembroke Park Fire Department team quickly took control of the scene. He directed the department’s engineer to pull the fire engine sideways to block oncoming traffic. He called out the hazardous materials team and directed members to quickly spread absorbent material over the gasoline to prevent it from igniting. “The crew did everything right,” the city’s fire commissioner said.
DeLotta credited his crew, saying he felt uncomfortable taking the award without them.
In 2021, DeLotta was named Paramedic of the Year by the Florida Department of Health for service “above and beyond the call of duty.”
Reached by phone on Sunday in his hospital room, DeLotta said he hopes to be released in about three weeks but acknowledged, “I really don’t know.”
He said the show of support by his comrades has been “pretty impressive.” Visitors, he said, have ranged “from chiefs to firefighters that I’ve always trained and went out of my way to ensure they know what they were doing.”
Members of the Broward County Professional Firefighters and Paramedics Local 4321 posted a photo on Facebook of fellow Special Ops team members visiting DeLotta in the hospital under the caption, “No one fights alone!”
The Broward County Firefighters Benevolent Fund launched an assistance campaign on the website, Mealtrain.com, that’s similar to Go Fund Me but encourages donors to send food and money. Renee DeLotta said the family received more food than they can eat but appreciates the financial donations as the couple faces an uncertain couple of years.
It’s a bittersweet turn for Renee, finding herself over the years regretting the amount of time her husband had spent on the job, her father said.
“I said to her, ‘This might be the Lord’s way of saying that there’s going to be a change in your life, but you’re going to be together,’” Giarritta said.
Eric DeLotta’s recovery could be something along the lines of divine payback for all of the people he has rescued over the years, his wife said. “He says a prayer over all of his patients,” she said. “I think all of that is coming back to him.”
Briant says he’s confident that DeLotta will be back on the job soon, training newcomers and confidently leading team members into difficult rescues.
“After his neurologist said that things didn’t look good, he shocked her by responding to her verbal commands,” Briant said. “He’s been proving them wrong for three to four weeks. I’m optimistic he will continue to improve.”