Camano Island woman wins fight to have firefighter husband's death ruled job-related

VIDEO: Widow of firefighter fights to prove his work led to heart disease

CAMANO ISLAND, Wash. — "Excellent dad, the best.  They don't come any better than him," says Kalina Shouse when asked about her husband Erik.

The couple have two beautiful, intelligent, active little girls but Kalina Shouse no longer has the man who helped make them; Erik Shouse died last year at just 40, suddenly and unexpectedly.

"It was shocking -- which then led me to, ‘What happened?' That was kind of my reccurring thought - 'What happened? I don't understand what happened,'" Kalina Shouse remembers.

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An autopsy revealed the otherwise healthy firefighter had heart disease.

The state of Washington recognizes a number of conditions -- cancers mostly -- as presumptive, meaning a direct result of firefighting. Heart attack is one of them, but only if it occurs within 24 hours of strenuous activity related to the job or within 72 hours of smoke exposure.

Neither applied to Erik Shouse but in a pivotal decision by Labor and Industries, his heart disease -- and consequently his death -- was ruled presumptive or, in other words, caused by his job.

And that designation entitles Kalina and her children to survivor's benefits.

"My research led to the statistics that this is not an unknown risk for firefighters," Kalina Shouse explains.

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The Washington State Council of Firefighters has been lobbying for heart disease and other medical conditions to be added to the presumptive list.

In 2018 we interviewed Heather Murphy, whose wife Crystal Murphy, a Lacey firefighter, took her own life after being diagnosed with PTSD.

When Crystal died, PTSD that occurred over a long period of time was not considered presumptive. That has since changed and as a result Heather's death is now recognized as job-related.

But heart disease in general still isn't on the list.  So while Kalina Shouse won her husband's battle, she's not claiming victory just yet.

"I feel like I've had two parallel goals through all this -- to do what was best for my family to help take care of them, and also to change this for the next family."

Kalina Shouse is making great progress with that mission; the state council of firefighters is helping her draft a bill that would add heart disease to the presumptive list.