DRACUT -- Good firefighters have always been more about actions than words.
It explains why, five seconds into Tom Mackey's speech -- which Dracut Fire Chief Dave Brouillette asked him to give after Mackey was pinned Wednesday as the department's new deputy chief -- Mackey seemed relieved to be interrupted by his mother, Betty Mackey of Tewksbury, who approached to give her son a loving and proud hug.
The deputy chief's badge was pinned on Mackey, 50, by his dad, Bill Mackey, 81, of Tewksbury, the former assistant fire chief of Massport/Logan Airport Fire and Rescue, where he responded to all manner of air, sea and land emergencies in a remarkable 42-year career.
Dozens of family members, friends and fellow firefighters attending the ceremony in the Pleasant Street fire station applauded the pinning by Mackey's father, and especially the mother and son's embrace.
There were moments when actions again spoke louder than words, as the gathering was touched not only by a heartfelt hug, but also by the inspiring story of a man who has officially realized a childhood dream of following in his father's footsteps, while overcoming two nearly deadly brain aneurysms along the way.
"Thanks to everyone for attending today. There are a lot more people here than I thought there would be, really... I'm starting to cry here," Mackey said.
In 1992, Mackey, who holds an engineering degree from UMass Lowell, left a higher-paying job as an engineer at Hanscom Air Force Base to start a new career in Dracut, the one he'd aspired to since childhood, as a firefighter.
"Since I was a kid, way back, this is what I wanted to do," Mackey told The Sun after the ceremony. "My father served 42 years as a firefighter for Massport at Logan Airport and I used to spend a lot of time at the fire station as a kid. I was exposed to it all the time.
Though it seems that every child expresses a desire to become firefighter at some point, Mackey found that as he got older his desire never waned.
"But my father was saying it was a really difficult job to get, so get an education, a job, and get something started in case (a firefighting career) doesn't come through for you," Mackey said.
Adding more depth to the emotion of Wednesday's ceremony was the fact Mackey has been on the receiving end of emergency, life-saving help twice.
In July 2011, and again this past February, Mackey suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage -- bleeding in the area between the brain and thin tissues that cover the brain, more commonly known as a brain aneurysm.
The first aneurysm, three years ago, struck when Mackey was on the job, manning Station 3 on Lakeview Avenue in the Collinsville section of town. A massive headache came on, like none he ever had before, he recalled. It was accompanied by nausea and vomiting. He was rushed to Lowell General Hospital then transported to Beth Israel Hospital in Boston where he was diagnosed and underwent emergency surgery to clamp the bleeding vessel.
"It was a major surgery, and I was out of work for several months because of that, but I came back from that OK," Mackey said of the 2011 scare.
This past February, he suffered a second aneurysm, though this time what he was experiencing was no mystery.
"The doctors attributed it to a weakness in the artery where the first one happened," Mackey said. "The second (hemorrhage) happened in the same spot, right next to each other.
"The first one was dangerous enough; I was very close to death. The second one, even worse," he said. "But I've recovered from that one, too, because the doctors did a fantastic job -- both times. Here I am, as healthy as ever, and doing well."
The new deputy chief also credited his fellow firefighters and paramedics for aiding him in his time of critical need. Understandably, such near-death experiences have only strengthened Mackey's love for his profession.
"We have a bond because we all do the same job, a dangerous job at times, and we all have to be able to be there and support each other," he said.
Since landing in Dracut, Mackey said he has found his service time as a firefighter every bit as rewarding as he'd anticipated.
"When we arrive on-scene, people are relieved and happy to see us, and we're trained to help them -- more than they even know we can many times," said Mackey. "Just that excitement of being able to make somebody's day, and help them out of a difficult situation. It's something I saw my father do in his career, and it grew on me as I got older as something I wanted to do. That ability to help people and do a lot of good for people when they call us."
Mackey's promotion to deputy chief followed the July retirements of two 34-year veteran Dracut firefighters, Deputy Chief Mike Ralls and Capt. Joseph Greenwood, and departure of Capt. Gregory Gagnon, an 18-year veteran, to become the fire chief in Ipswich.
Mackey said he looked forward to continuing to perform his role as the department's training officer, of both Dracut's new recruits and his veteran colleagues.
After concluding his brief speech by again thanking the gathering, he embraced his parents, brothers, sister, and his son, Dracut K-9 Officer Zachary Coleman, his daughter-in-law and grandson, before happily returning focus to his favorite pursuit.
Being a firefighter.
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