NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - Captain David Heath of New Hanover County Fire Rescue spent his 30-year career as a firefighter dedicated to helping save people's lives. He died in 2013 after suffering a heart attack during a training session.
On Thursday, he was honored during a special vesting ceremony by paws4people, a Wilmington organization that trains service dogs.
"He was a hard charger, stubborn, and he would do anything in this world for anyone," explained William Heath, David's brother.
William made a secret trip to paws4people Thursday morning to surprise Terri Smith and her service dog Heath, a 1-year-old golden retriever named after David, for a special ceremony.
"I have a rare genetic condition called Ehlers-Danlos, and so I applied for a service dog," Smith said. "The condition affects my connective tissue, and all my joints are floppy and fragile, and this dog Heath helps me keep my balance and lets me know when my heart rate goes up."
Terri and Heath have been training together at paws4people since December. The organization requires the client/dog teams to train once a month so clients can learn how to use their dogs for their unique symptom sets.
The first major milestone for teams is the giving of a black vest, which means Terri and Heath are allowed to go home together for the first time.
What started off as a routine training session quickly turned into something more meaningful for Terri when she saw Williams walk through the door carrying Heath's brand new black vest.
"I was shaking. I thought, 'Wow, he looks really nice in that uniform. I wonder what he is here for,' then I heard his last name and I lost it," Smith explained.
William came to Wilmington to present Terri and Heath with the special vest.
"To have him named after someone who sacrificed their life every day is just amazing to me," Smith added. "He epitomizes the love David was to his family. He is saving my life as David saved others."
William sees a lot of his brother's traits in Heath.
"It means a phenomenal amount that this animal is doing so much for her," William said. "I believe a part of my brother is in that dog. There are so many similarities."
The dog is a true testament to who David was as a person, sacrificing his life for the safety of others, just as Heath will now do for Terri.
"It's a great deal of pride for me and my family and Terri will always be my family from here on out," said William.
Terri hopes to give back to the community by taking Heath to fire stations around the area to help spread joy to others.