A Match Made in Heaven
By Katie McFadden
“Who is James Cunningham?” a nurse at New York Columbia Presbyterian Hospital inquired when Belle Harbor resident Mike Coughlin called saying he wanted to see if he was a match for someone special in need of a kidney donation. After all, Mike was one of many willing to step up to the plate for this man who has a close connection with the Big Guy Upstairs and is well beloved in his parish — St. Francis de Sales’ Associate Pastor Father Jim Cunningham. With a match made in heaven, Fr. Jim is about to get a new kidney and a third lease on life.
With a tentative date of April 25, Fr. Jim is ready to go under the knife — again. The beloved SFDS pastor’s kidney troubles began shortly after he joined the parish. Seven years ago, he was diagnosed with late-stage kidney disease after having some bloodwork done. The diagnosis came as a shock, as it wasn’t something that ran in his family. “I had gone to see a nephrologist at Lenox Hill, and she said, ‘you need a kidney transplant.’ She didn’t say ‘your kidneys are failing.’ It was, ‘you need to do this,’ like a done deal,” Cunningham recalled. His siblings and cousins were tested, but unfortunately, none were a match. Before putting out a mass call for help, a friend decided to answer the call, without being asked. “My friend, Pat Nash, felt convinced he could do this and when he was tested, I resisted. I didn’t want him to, but he insisted. I was getting out of dialysis one night and he called and said he was a match,” Cunningham said.
Seemingly, it was a match made in heaven. Nash had known Fr. Jim from his days at Good Shepherd in Brooklyn. But their personal connection was the late Firefighter Timmy Stackpole. Nash, also an FDNY firefighter, and Fr. Jim had been good friends with the firefighter who was killed on 9/11. “A part of Pat felt Timmy was telling him to do this. Timmy is constantly present in our lives. He’s been gone 21 years, but his name comes up probably every day. The guy was just something else, and he had an influence on so many lives. I find him to be pure goodness and faith and his impact is overwhelming. I can feel his presence from heaven constantly in my life and he was an amazing friend to both me and Pat,” Cunningham said.
In March 2016, Nash underwent surgery to give one of his kidneys to Fr. Jim. “It was full speed ahead and he never looked back. For seven years, I had this great life thanks to him,” Cunningham said. “I felt like Timmy had something to do with it the first time around, and I’m sure he had something to do with this the second time around.”
In January of last year, Fr. Jim’s bloodwork once again started showing abnormalities. “There was a blockage and they tried to treat it with different procedures including putting a tube in and I had to go every two weeks to have it checked. Finally, in May, they said it wasn’t working and I needed to have surgery in June,” Cunningham said. That surgery turned into four surgeries between June 15 and July 22. He spent the summer recuperating, until he began to get sick again in September 2022. “I had to go to the hospital, and I developed Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA),” he said. Between MRSA and having Covid twice, Fr. Jim’s kidney levels began to elevate again, showing signs that his kidney was failing. In February, he had a biopsy done. “I found out on a Friday that I had to go back on dialysis,” Cunningham said. A few days later, St. Francis de Sales Church shared a flyer on social media, advising the parish of Fr. Jim’s kidney troubles and asking if anyone with O+ blood would consider getting tested to donate a kidney. The flyer was shared by The Rockaway Times and even posted on the window of Fr. Jim’s favorite restaurant, Last Stop. But even before that call for action, something else was at work.
In June of last year, the sister-in-law of Mike Coughlin, Mary Moran, had donated a kidney to a stranger. “Two years ago, my mother-in-law, Diane Erhard, was sick and she ended up in St. John’s and died in October 2021. While there, my sister-in-law, Mary Moran found out about a nurse at St. John’s that needed a kidney. She found out this lady was a mother and said, ‘I just lost my mother, how terrible if someone else lost their mother,’ so she started getting tested,” Coughlin said. Mary wound up not being a match for the nurse, but still went through with donating a kidney to a stranger. As a eucharistic minister at SFDS, Fr. Jim had known Erhard well. It was at Erhard’s funeral that he learned of Mary’s decision, and he went on to visit her after the surgery in June 2022. Mike was also inspired by Mary’s selfless act. “I went to visit her after the surgery and she said, ‘Michael Coughlin, you can do this.’ I said, ‘I think I can,’” he recalled. Before he knew it, Coughlin was doing research and signing up to be tested at NYU Langone, a donor hospital that’s a bit closer to Rockaway.
“I finished 80% of testing and everything was coming back good when one Saturday morning, Mary texts me and says Fr. Jim isn’t doing too well,” he said. Shortly, after, Mike, a retired NYPD officer, texted Fr. Jim, offering to come to his rescue. “The morning after they said I had to go back on dialysis, Mike calls me and said, ‘I heard you’re not feeling well. I signed up to be a donor at NYU for a stranger, but if you’re sick, I’d like to switch to Columbia,’” Cunningham recalled. By that Monday, Mike had filled out an application and called Columbia to transfer his records. Meanwhile, after the call to action for a donor by SFDS, other parishioners had also started calling Columbia Presbyterian. “The hospital couldn’t keep up with the number of people. They said to me, ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘We haven’t gotten this many in a long time.’ I started laughing and said, ‘It’s because of my parish,’” Cunningham said. “They’re backlogged and people are still being tested.”
But Fr. Jim already had the perfect match. “They had to take my blood and his blood and mix it for a week,” Coughlin, said. “They said it was a perfect match, not just a good match, it’s perfect.”
And he wasn’t the only one. “Mike called me and said he was a match and the next day, another parishioner called me and said she was a match, too,” Cunningham said. Altogether, Fr. Jim has had three matches so far, while others continue to get tested. “They don’t stop the process until the transplant takes place,” Cunningham said.
To have such an amazing response is overwhelming for Fr. Jim. “It is very overwhelming and very humbling and it’s just once again an example of what it means to live in this community of St. Francis and Rockaway. You see this over and over again, the generosity of people, and it’s constant, and it makes you realize, this is a gift,” Cunningham said.
Coughlin remains humble about being able to give that gift to Fr. Jim. “It really is an honor to give it to him because I think the other donors would want to do it too. The whole community wants to do it. I think it just happened to be me because I finished the testing early. It could’ve been anyone,” Coughlin said.
But Fr. Jim is thankful that Mike is his match. “He’s an unbelievable person. It’s not a surprise to me because if you know him and his family, this doesn’t surprise you,” Cunningham said.
After all, it takes a special person to say they’re “looking forward” to surgery. “I’m looking forward to it. When I was a cop, I had stopped a robbery, and I felt so good about it. This time, I know I’m doing something good. I’ll be proud that day,” Coughlin said.
That day on Columbia Presbyterian’s calendar is April 25, when Coughlin and Cunningham will simultaneously go under the knife, and Fr. Jim will once again receive the gift of life. And there’s plenty of support surrounding both men. “I’ve had prayers coming from every parish I’ve been at. People have been so supportive, but St. Francis is really different. Even the kids in the school have done fundraising. They had a green shirt day on St. Patrick’s Day and raised $546 for the nephrology department at Columbia in my honor,” Cunningham said. Coughlin’s job at St. Edmunds, his wife, and his own kids are also supportive. So much so that he has already inspired someone to pay it forward. “We’re driving with the kids one day and my wife, Anne, asks them how they feel about me having the surgery and my son Max says, ‘I feel great. I want to do it in the future.’ He’s only 17,” Coughlin said with pride.
For information on how to become a living kidney donor, head to: https://columbiasurgery.org/kidney-transplant