Dave Shafer has responded to 200-plus emergency calls this year, rushing to fires and car crashes at all hours, sometimes more than once in a day.
While it’s an impressive record of giving to his community, that’s not why the 63-year-old Cumberland County resident brings it up.
The health he enjoys, and most of what he does, results from something given to him — a gift from someone he barely knew, but who now occupies a large place in his life.
Shafer had a kidney transplant from a living donor a little over a year ago.
For six years before that, he needed hours-long dialysis treatments multiple times per week. Living with kidney failure is demanding and Shafer often felt run down and weak. His wife, Kathie, constantly worried about infections or that his health would take a bad turn or that no kidney would become available, as too often happens.
All the while, Shafer continued responding to emergencies, as he had since his teens, even as his health and dialysis schedule made it a strain and sometimes impossible.
Then came the transplant. And Shafer was soon pouring much of his renewed vigor into his role as a fire police captain with Upper Allen Township Fire Department.
“For one, I’m actually available to be there all the time, because I’m not spending three days a week in a dialysis chair. And then the energy and the lifting and everything else is most definitely improved since the transplant,” he says.
Aside from that, he and Kathie have satisfied a long-delayed desire to visit family around the country, setting out last June on a three-week drive covering 6,000 miles.
All made possible by a living person willing to give one of his kidneys.
But there’s another reason the transplant was life-changing for both Shafer and the donor: the kidney came from a fellow emergency responder, one he saw often yet barely knew.
Steve Cosey, 68, is a veteran firefighter and medical responder with Monaghan Township Volunteer Fire Company. Monaghan and Upper Allen are neighboring communities, with the companies often called to the same emergencies. Shafer and Cosey had crossed paths many times.
Cosey is a respiratory therapist at UPMC Carlisle Hospital. His work made him familiar with the toll of kidney failure. He’s also deeply religious, with his focus on serving God, which so often centers on helping people. For several years he had mulled the idea of donating a kidney.
A PennLive article detailing Shafer’s situation played a role. As Cosey read the article, two details jumped out: Shafer has Type O blood and, at 6-2, needed a kidney from another large person. Those two characteristics, in fact, were the reason he’d waited so long. Cosey met both requirements. He instantly knew what he must do.
Part of their story involves a stretch of Lewisberry Road in York County that’s the site of many accidents.
In the spring of 2022, Shafer and Cosey found themselves alone there in the aftermath of a car crash. Cosey was sweeping up debris and Shafer asked if he needed help. Cosey had already heard Shafer needed a kidney. But he didn’t mention it, or that he had been thinking of becoming a living donor.
He didn’t tell Shafer of his intent until later, after reading the PennLive article, getting testing and learning for certain he was a match for Shafer. Then he called him — a totally unexpected call that filled Shafer’s eyes with tears.
Memories come flooding back to Shafer each time he passes the spot on Lewisberry Road.
The transplant and many things surrounding it are never far from Cosey’s mind either.
“It has changed my life. I think about it every day and feel like I’m a better person for it,” he says.
The transplant took place last October. Both were out of the hospital within a few days. Cosey had to take off from work for two weeks, but only because of lifting-related precautions. In fact, people can return to virtually all of their former activities, including running — although not contact sports — in a matter of weeks after donating a kidney.
Shafer soon felt much better, and last year had one of his most active and enjoyable holiday seasons in years.
It takes six months for the immune system to build up following a transplant, and Shafer wasn’t allowed to travel out of state until then. After the conclusion of the spring semester at Messiah University, where Kathie is a vice president, they set out in their truck, traveling west over the Rocky Mountains, as far north as Minneapolis, Minn. and as far south as Galveston, Texas.
For many years before his transplant, they shied away from long trips because of the difficulties in scheduling dialysis treatments along the way. Also, people awaiting kidneys must be able to get to the transplant center within a few hours should an organ become available. If not, they must temporarily come off the waiting list. The Shafers didn’t want to risk missing out on an organ.
They had good reason to worry: 92,000 people are waiting for kidneys in the United States and about 5,000 per year die because no kidney becomes available. A similar number drop off the list because their health declines to the point they’re no longer eligible for a transplant.
“In the morning I used to pray for his health and for a donor. Now I give thanks for how good he’s doing and for Steve,” Kathie Shafer says. “It feels like our life is back to what it was pre-kidney failure.”
On Oct. 18, the one-year anniversary of the transplant, Cosey wrote on Facebook about his gratitude for things including the support and encouragement from his wife, Della, and for the Shafers “making this a great experience by welcoming us into their lives.”
“When I look at all the people who helped me, and realize that many people I don’t know were helping Dave, it is clear that it took a village. I thank God for each of you,” he wrote.
Here’s something else that makes them grateful: Some transplant recipients never meet their donor, and vice versa. Shafer and Cosey are thankful for their new relationship.
At emergency scenes, as intense and focused as they can be, Shafer makes a point of seeking out Cosey, often as things are wrapping up.
“It’s good to see him out and healthy and to connect with him,” Cosey says.
Cosey is naturally reserved. At first, he planned to keep his gift to Shafer mostly private. But he changed his mind after speaking to his pastor at The Meeting House Church in Dillsburg, who told him sharing the experience would show the impact of God and raise awareness about organ donation.
Now he welcomes questions about organ donation.
“It’s a relatively easy way to save or change someone’s life,” Cosey says. “It doesn’t require much from the donor compared to what the recipient is receiving.”