Diocesan News

Priest and Firefighter Buddy Work to Raise Organ Donation Awareness

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Father James Cunningham underwent a life-saving kidney transplant after being diagnosed with late-stage kidney disease six years ago and is now busy spreading the word on the importance of organ donations.

“So many people are waiting for transplants. We have to think about what we can do to help other people and are we ready to never count the cost,” Father Cunningham, the associate pastor at St. Francis de Sales Church in Belle Harbor, told Currents News.

In his case, the kidney came from a buddy of his, Firefighter Pat Nash.

“As far as the kidneys go, you have two. You only need one,” Nash told Currents News.

Together, Father Cunningham and Nash are working to raise awareness of organ donations.

[Related: Firefighter Gerhard Remembered As a Carpenter, Bridge Builder, Dedicated Member of FDNY]

New York State has one of the lowest rates of organ donations in the country. In 2019, only 35% of New Yorkers over the age of 16 had signed up to donate their vital organs, as compared to the national average of 58%.

Currently, there are 8,000 New Yorkers waiting for transplants. While in other parts of the country, patients typically wait for one to two years to receive life-saving organ transplants, here they wait longer — sometimes three to five years.

The long wait is largely due to the shortage of available organs caused by a lack of donors. But that may be changing.

Since the tragic deaths of Police Officer Wilbert Mora and Firefighter Jesse Gerhard — both of whom were organ donors — the organization LiveOnNY has reported seeing a sharp increase in the volume of calls from people looking for information on how to register to become donors. LiveOnNY is a non-profit organization that works to facilitate organ donations.

The donation from Mora, who was shot to death along with his NYPD colleague, Officer Jason Rivera, while answering a domestic violence call in a Harlem apartment, has spawned a movement, “to embrace the gift of life and say yes to saving the lives of those in need,” LiveOnNY CEO Leonard Achan said in a statement.

Gerhard’s organs were donated following his death last month. He died after collapsing in his Far Rockaway firehouse. According to Achan, the donation of Gerhard’s organs could save as many as 75 people.

Father James Cunningham (left) whose life was saved by a transplanted kidney donated by his friend, Firefighter Pat Nash (right), said “I wish there were more people like Pat Nash in the world.” (Photo: courtesy of Father Cunningham)

The recent increase in organ donation inquiries generated memories for Father Cunningham and Nash, both of whom speak out whenever and wherever they can to urge people to become donors.

Six years ago, when the priest was told he had a potentially deadly kidney disease and was in need of a transplant, Nash quickly stepped up. He got tested and, when he proved to be a good march, immediately agreed to take part in the transplant.

“I just felt like it was a no brainer,” Nash said.

Father Cunningham still marvels at his friend’s generosity. “He just never looked back, never hesitated and became a great example to other people of how important it is to be a living donor — how you change and save someone’s life,” the priest said.