Five Years Later, One Kidney Still Binds Two Maplewood Firefighters

by The Village Green
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Greg Snell and Joe Callaghan at the dedication of the Maplewood 9/11 Memorial, September 11, 2016

Greg Snell and Joe Callaghan at the dedication of the Maplewood 9/11 Memorial, September 11, 2016

Five years ago, the story of one organ transplant and two Maplewood firefighters touched the hearts of local residents and beyond.

When Joe Callaghan, then a Captain with the Maplewood Fire Department, gave his colleague and friend Greg Snell his kidney, I covered the story for Maplewood Patch, but the tale went beyond our towns: Pulitzer finalist Mark Di Ionno of the Star-Ledger also wrote about the pair.

Di Ionno wrote about how firefighters, working in close quarters and in challenging situations, grow to be close friends: “Real friends, not just work friends. The kind of friends who get invited to children’s christenings and backyard barbecues and hear stories about the highs and lows in an average life. Snell and Callaghan were those kind of friends. And more. The kind of friends where when one guy needed a kidney, the other guy gave it.”

Snell, once a powerful firefighter and former defensive end for the Columbia High School football team, had been forced to retire because of failing kidneys after more than 18 years of service on the MFD. Callaghan, watching his friend deteriorate, stepped in and offered one of his kidneys — despite the fact that he was still on the job and father to four children (Callaghan’s wife Mary is another hero in this story, unquestionably backing Joe’s decision).

Greg Snell and Joe Callaghan

After the transplant went through, I remember talking to Callaghan about his recovery. He was stoic but had to admit that the procedure was not as simple as he had thought and the impact was longer term.

Nonetheless, he kept the focus on Greg Snell and his recovery. When Callaghan was recognized as the Firefighter of the Year by the Maplewood Township Committee, Callaghan called Snell “a big teddy bear” and “the best guy you’d ever want to meet. Seeing him that ill, it was the easiest decision I ever made.” Snell was still not well enough to be present at that ceremony. I never got to interview him in person for the story five years ago.

I finally met Snell on September 11, 2016 at the dedication of the new Maplewood September 11 Memorial at the Hilton Library. A tall and smiling man approached to shake my hand. “Don’t you know who I am?” asked Snell teasingly. Snell then gamely posed with Callaghan and the affection was obvious between the two men.

In a followup email, Snell wrote that he now lives “a full and productive life” because of the “generosity” of Callaghan. “Joe and I remain friends and see each other periodically at social events. I am forever grateful to him,” said Snell.

Snell detailed his recovery: “Two years ago I walked in my first 5k walk/run event. I did not finish at the top, but I did finish the race course which happened to be 3.11 miles. Prior to the kidney transplant, walking a block would tire me. The transplant has improved my quality of life, for I can now exercise, jump rope with children in the neighborhood and enjoy the beauty of nature.”

Snell also noted that “the transplant has brought me closer to God. I am in awe everyday that God gave me the gift of life. For that, I am truly humbled and blessed.”

Callaghan, who recently retired from the department after rising to the rank of Deputy Chief, brushed off any difficulty on his part in making the donation: “I feel fine. I almost forget I did it sometimes.”

“To see him healthy is the reason I did it,” Callaghan added. “I also was floored by the amount of praise and friendship I received from his family and his church. We still are close and share a bond.

“All is great and I’d do it again.”

Current Maplewood Fire Chief Michael Dingelstedt told Village Green that both Snell and Callaghan were “excellent firefighters and an asset to the department throughout their careers.”

“Unfortunately, Greg’s career was cut short, but he was fortunate to have Joe as a friend who was able to donate a kidney to him,” said Dingelstedt.

“I am privileged to have worked with them both.”

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