New Yorker Discovers Anonymous Kidney Donor is 9/11 Hero Firefighter

December 25, 2017 Updated: October 5, 2018

California resident Lois Knudson grew up in New York City admiring firefighters—all the more so after terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in 2001.

“I don’t think firefighters get the recognition that they’re due,” Knudson told The New York Post. “9/11 was so devastating and so huge. But they are always risking their lives. You don’t hear about what they do on a regular basis.”

Firefighters from FDNY Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9 watch as a trailer carrying a piece of steel from the World Trade Center prepares to start its journey from New York City to Gander, Newfoundland in Canada, Sept. 6, 2016. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

This month a New York firefighter saved her life—from 2,500 miles away.

Knudson, 59, comes from a family hounded by deadly genes. A fatal kidney disease runs through the bloodline and has already taken her sister, and took her mother at age 42.

For four years, Knudson had been on a waiting list for a kidney transplant. Fourteen friends and family members have volunteered to donate their kidneys, but none passed the criteria for a donor.

“People were disappointed and felt bad, but I felt it just wasn’t my time and that my time will come,” she said.

For a year and a half, Knudson had been undergoing dialysis three times a week—a three-hour procedure. She managed that while working as a teacher of children with disabilities.

Then on Nov. 21, Knudson received a call: “We found a match for you! A man in his 40s from the Northeast.” Her husband broke down in tears of joy.

The donation came from a program that allows living donors to provide organs to anonymous recipients. Knudson was eligible to receive such a donation because her niece, Jessica Ellis, was also donating her kidney to a stranger.

On Dec. 6, Knudson underwent the transplant at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, where she now lives.

About a week later, due to the Post inquiries, Knudson signed consent forms that allowed the donor to learn her identity. It also allowed her to learn the incredible story of the man who saved her life.

The Fireman

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Kevin Shea was just packing his stuff after a 24-hour shift with Ladder 35 Upper East Side fire station. Then the alarm sounded. Another shift was already on duty. He could just go home. But the third-generation fireman decided otherwise.

“There was an extra seat on the engine,” he said.

“I’ll take that, sir,” he told the lieutenant.

Then came the horror of the attack. Shea was right outside the South Tower when it collapsed. He was blown away from the building. When he regained his faculties, the air was one black cloud. He crawled until he saw a light, and then crawled towards it, but it was a burning gas pipe. He then lost consciousness.

Next day he woke up in a Newark hospital, the sole survivor of his 13-member firehouse.

“I survived through luck—and they did not,” he said.

A Blood donor for years, the retired firefighter learned about the organ donation program and signed up.

When asked about his motivation, his answer was simple.

“I really don’t know what drives me. I wish I had some great explanation. But the way I look at it, I have an extra kidney and there’s someone out there who definitely needs one,” he said.

Knudson said she “got chills” when she learned a New York City fireman gave her his kidney.

“He saves lives all the time, that’s what he does,” she said of Shea. “And [now] he saved another New Yorker from across the country.”

“It’s absolutely a miracle!” she said. “I will never need another Christmas gift.”

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