Cavanaugh ‘never gave up’ on firefighting dream

Young Seth Cavanaugh (with dad Pat) wearing his lucky black fire helmet. SUBMITTED PHOTO


By Samantha Lyles

Lots of kids grow up dreaming of becoming firefighters, but few wanted it more – or overcame more to realize that dream – than Seth Cavanaugh. Born into a family of firemen, he practically grew up in fire stations. “My mother’s dad was a fire chief in Pine Ridge, my dad’s dad was a firefighter here in Darlington, my dad, my brother, and my uncle are as well,” says Seth. “My earliest memories are of riding with my dad to calls and watching them fight fires. I was about 5 years old and I’d sit in the truck and watch everything. I thought it was pretty cool.” While accompanying his father, DFD Chief Pat Cavanaugh, to scenes was undeniably exciting, watching the way firefighters tried so hard to save homes, businesses, personal belongings and sometimes even lives, impressed Seth even more. Being a fireman was cool, but the job was also incredibly important. The adrenaline coupled with a sense of purpose proved irresistible; he was hooked. Unfortunately, a terrible obstacle arose in the form of Hirschsprung disease, a rare hereditary illness that involves missing nerve cells in part or all of the large intestine. Hirschsprung attacks the colon and causes difficulty passing stool, and it can prove fatal. Long before Seth was born, this disease claimed the life of Pat’s infant brother. But diagnosis and care have advanced greatly over the years, and Seth stood a fighting chance. But he and his family did have to fight. “The first four years was a rollercoaster. We were at the hospital three or four times a month,” says Pat. “It was twice a month to Palmetto Richland (Hospital) and twice a month to the doctor’s office until he turned 9 or 10 years old.” Aside from dad Pat and mom Denise, Seth had a constant companion during this journey. As a little boy, he was given a kid-sized black fire helmet, and it was love at first sight. During his illness, the toy helmet became more than a wardrobe staple; it was a sort of totem that made him feel safe while being wheeled in and out of surgeries and undergoing painful medical procedures. “I remember being at the hospital and I was always watching firefighting videos,” says Seth, adding that the doctors found him pretty amusing, this little kid in the fire helmet who preferred firefighting videos over cartoons. Each surgery was followed by a setback until, at last, his entire colon had to be removed. The healing process took some time, and there were periods where he needed to use a colostomy bag, but the kid bounced back strong enough to play recreation league football and get cracking on that whole “becoming a fireman” thing. Seth’s formal training began at 14 when DFD established an Explorers post, where teens 14 to 18 learn the basics of firefighting by observing daily routines, studying fire scene procedures, and even helping combat small grass fires. At 16, Seth began taking S.C. Fire Academy classes so that when he turned 18, he was already prepared and qualified to work as a firefighter. Wasting no time, Seth, now 19, works full time with the City of Bennettsville Fire Department. Unsurprisingly, he nailed the job interview, almost as if he had been preparing for it his whole life. He also aced the physical requirement portion, dragging heavy hoses, handling tall ladders, flipping tires, and operating equipment. Seth says that although he can routinely perform all these tasks, his medical history does mean he has to work a little harder to stay fit. The legacy of his childhood health troubles mostly surfaces now as kidney stones and exhaustion due to dehydration — which he and his colleagues at the Bennettsville Fire Department monitor closely every day. “They are always pushing me to stay hydrated. … If I don’t drink a lot, I can dehydrate quicker, so I just have to keep drinking water so that doesn’t happen,” Seth says, noting that electrolyte and mineral packs help keep his temperature energy levels stable. “And I avoid greasy foods and anything with red dye in it, because that can get me in trouble.” While he’s feeling pretty strong these days, the memories of those early childhood setbacks are never far away. That makes Seth especially thankful that he’s able to live his dream, and hopeful that he can serve as an example for others who see the path to their goals littered with hurdles. “It’s tough, but I keep pushing myself forward and keep doing it. I just don’t give up. … I want to be the best firefighter I can be, and hopefully I can work my way up to becoming a chief someday,” he says. “If you have a dream or something you really want to do, you can’t give up on it. Do the work, keep after it, and the world is your oyster.”

Author: Stephan Drew

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