After receiving his kidney transplant on April 11, 2005, John Gailie wanted to find a way to give back. He decided that the best path was to become a firefighter.
“I used to hear all the time on TV, ‘You’ve been given the gift of life, give it back,’ ” Gailie said, referring to a past organ donation awareness campaign. “I took it literally: I decided at the age of 53 to join the fire department. I got medical approval. It was six months after the transplant that I joined the Cambria Fire Department.”
“I started out as a utility firefighter, which is basically lighter duty,” he said. After receiving additional medical approval and more training, Gailie became an external firefighter – due to continued restrictions he can’t use an air pack or head inside a burning building, but there are many ways he does contribute. “Driving the trucks, running the pumps, handling hose, putting fires out from outside – I’ve had all the training,” Gailie explained.
A brief examination decades ago found that one of his kidneys was small but seemed to be functioning. Then in the late 1990s, Gailie was in a motor vehicle accident and follow-up tests showed that he had high creatinine levels, indicating that his kidney function was impaired. He worked with doctors to address the problems, but he eventually reached end stage renal failure.
His three children, co-workers at General Motors and his wife all volunteered for testing to see if they could donate a kidney to Gailie. “The best option at the time, according to my doctors, was my wife,” Gailie recalled. “We were a tissue match, we were a blood match, we were a four antigen out of six match. She’s half my size, but it worked out real well.”
John and Bev have been married for 40 years, and have known each other since they were young – they met when she was 14 and he was 16.
“It was easy for me, I was sick. My wife was the one who had the real courage,” Gailie said of the transplant. “You can imagine being totally healthy and walking into the hospital and going in for a major surgery as a healthy person.”
Bev is in excellent health and John describes his own health as “pretty robust.”
“I think things worked out quite well. I feel very fortunate,” Gailie said. “It’s allowed me to continue to support myself and my family… I’ve gotten to see all of my grandchildren since the transplant.” Gailie’s oldest grandchild is 5 and the youngest is an infant. “There’s a whole life unfolding because of that transplant.”
For five years, John has worked as assistant welding instructor at Orleans Niagara BOCES, where he feels he has been able to connect with students and help them both personally and professionally. His role as a firefighter also allows him to give back to the community.
“There’s a whole lot of people I’ve been able to help. The gift you give multiplies itself over time,” Gailie said.
Police, firefighters and first responders from agencies across Western New York are working to give the Gift of Life by joining Unyts’ Holiday Heroes campaign. The agencies are hosting blood drives in December and January. The events include Donate Life Registry drives as well, where they’ll be encouraging the public to sign up to become organ, eye and tissue donors.
The Cambria and Sanborn fire companies will sponsor a blood drive at Wendt’s Propane & Oil in Sanborn on Friday, Jan. 9 from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Click here to find out more and make an appointment to give blood.