BEMIDJI -- It was just after 4 p.m. on Monday afternoon as the Bemidji Fire Department battled a fire at the BNSF railroad bridge on March 1.

For newly named fire chief Justin Sherwood, the two-hour effort to tame the flames was his first as fire chief. For 12-year on-call firefighter Walter Lindahl, he didn't know it would be his last.

“I could tell something was happening when we got to that fire,” Sherwood said about Lindahl. “Carrying our equipment, we went onto the bridge and (Lindahl) just fell to his knees. I knew something was wrong.”

During a three-day hospital stay in Fargo, Lindahl was diagnosed with Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis on April 29. This condition results from damaged lung tissue that can make it difficult for the lungs to work properly.

Since this diagnosis, Lindahl has not been able to work alongside his department and is in the process of seeking funds for a double lung transplant.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

The most difficult part of the diagnosis for Lindahl was telling his wife, Amy and two daughters, Abigail and Heather.

“I’ve been getting a lot of support, but it’s beyond painful to watch my wife mourn," Lindahl said. "I’m not the same person I was before.”

Lindahl is relying more on an oxygen tank as he waits to be placed on a transplant waiting list, needing to meet certain eligibility requirements.

“I’m not eligible yet to be on a list,” Lindahl said. With regards to the exact moment he can be placed to receive his transplant, Lindahl mentioned, “it’s in the future. It seems you have to get worse before you can get better.”

Looking toward the eventual transplant, Lindahl detailed he will need to remain within 15 minutes of the hospital for the first three months post-surgery, at which point the situation will be “touch-and-go.”

“There’s a chance for rejection, blood clots, infection, pneumonia,” Lindahl said. With his three-day stay in Fargo costing him around $40,000, he also said he couldn’t imagine how much this surgery and aftercare will cost, though Sherwood speculated it could be hundreds of thousands of dollars.

With this expected cost, the community has been rallying to raise funds to assist with medical expenses. The First Responders Day Party, hosted by Bar 209 on Saturday, Sept. 11, raised $1,295.

Originally planned as a general first responder celebration in lieu of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Lindahl’s friend Kim Anderson, along with the responders, advocated for a benefit on his behalf. Bar 209 changed the party idea into a benefit that included live music from the Acoust Hicks.

“I never ever expected this event would morph into what it did,” Lindahl said. “I’m very fortunate to have these guys behind me. One thing we bring to this department is, ‘all for one, one for all’ and step up for those in a time of need.”

The annual fish fry fundraiser traditionally held by the fire department will not be held this year, but another benefit is planned for 2 to 7 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 3, at the Bemidji Eagle’s Club.

There will be a pulled pork sandwich dinner with $10 meal tickets starting at 2 p.m. along with a bake sale. A cornhole tournament will start at 3 p.m. with a $25 per person entry fee, and a silent auction will close the evening at 7 p.m. along with a raffle drawing.

Cash donations are also accepted at Riverwood Bank under the account name, “Walter Lindahl’s Benefit.”

Highlighting health

Lindahl’s connection with the Bemidji Fire Department started after he moved to Bemidji from Bagley around 16 years ago.

Back then, Lindahl was adamant about quitting smoking and exercising to get into good physical condition and within a year, his wife Amy encouraged him to join the department.

“I went through the application and got hired as a paid, on-call firefighter,” Lindahl said. “Physical fitness got me (into the department), and it was the greatest thing that happened to me in my life.”

Sherwood met Lindahl in 2010 and they immediately hit it off as teammates. Bonding over their value of physical fitness, both participated in the American Lung Association’s Fight for Air Climb at the Accenture Tower in Minneapolis.

Fight for Air Climb is an indoor event series that challenges participants to climb -- or rather, take the stairs -- up a city’s skyscraper in order to raise funds for those living with lung disease.

Participants are able to pledge a certain dollar amount to complete the challenge and can also receive funds from their own supporters.

Lindahl and Sherwood said their 33-floor climb was their first challenge and allowed them to really get to know each other, and the years ever since have proven that they have each other’s backs no matter what.

“(Lindahl) has always been one of those guys who’s stepped up to any occasion and helped those in need,” Sherwood said. “He’s been both a formal and informal leader with his fire captain position still being held.”

Sherwood continued to speak on Lindahl’s impact on the department in terms of changing the culture of safety. “His impact is helping to make members safe,” Sherwood said before detailing Lindahl’s focus on cancer reduction and mental health among other health issues.

Lindahl’s care for health was also apparent during his time as an EMT. After earning his first responder degree in the fire department, he continued on to earn his emergency medical technician license and worked on an ambulance.

A nurse practitioner encouraged Lindahl to take nursing classes at Northwest Technical College during one of his EMT shifts, after which he continued to become a certified nursing assistant and licensed practical nurse.

In spring 2019, he started working towards his four-year nursing degree at Bemidji State University, with which he will graduate in May 2022.

BSU has accommodated Lindahl by allowing him to bring oxygen into the classrooms and completing untimed tests in a room separate from other people.

Lindahl praised BSU for these accommodations throughout the past six months and for encouraging him, even through his diagnosis, to complete his spring 2021 finals and his current senior year.

“I can’t say enough about the BSU staff,” Lindahl said. “The staff assured me and all reached out before school started, ‘you’re in your senior year and you’ve earned this.’”

Future goals

Lindahl explained that though he doesn’t expect to return to his role on the frontline for the fire department, he's hopeful he can remain active in an administrative or educational job.

“The days of dragging hoses are gone,” Lindahl said. In the meantime, he'll be working on being able to breathe again without the help of an oxygen tank and doing cardio and biking activities.

He said his highest priority remains being there for his family, who he credits as a central part of his support system along with many other friends and community members.

“My wife Amy, daughters Abigail and Heather, Kim Anderson, Dave Okerstrom from the cities, I mean the list goes on. My neighbors Chuck and Marlene Boe…” Lindahl continued, expounding on the immense amount of support he has received.

“(Lindahl’s) a people person,” Sherwood added, as this is one way to return the favor he has extended to so many. “He’s touched a lot of people’s lives.”