PLEASANTVILLE — Charles Lassiter knew his mother was tough, but he did not realize how tough until he was stricken with the same disease that killed her.
Now, the 43-year-old Pleasantville firefighter and father of three daughters is fighting for his own life — against Stage 5 polycystic kidney disease — but it is a fight he is not taking on alone.
Lassiter’s fellow firefighters, former EMS colleagues and the South Jersey community are rallying, through sporting events and bake sales, to help keep Lassiter’s bills paid and spirits high.
“He didn’t ask for help, but the decision was easy. Charles is one of the better people we all know. He’s a very good fireman and is always willing to help everyone else out,” said Pleasantville firefighter Patrick Foley, vice president of the city’s firefighters union. “We’ve always had different activities that we’ve done to support different charities. But when it’s one of our own, and Charles especially, it really gets things going.”
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, polycystic kidney disease is a hereditary disorder that causes the growth of numerous cysts in the kidneys. While some of the systems of the disease are treatable, the disease itself is incurable and often slowly gets worse with time, eventually leading to kidney failure.
Lassiter was diagnosed with the disease in 2005 while his mother, Shirley, was undergoing dialysis for it. In February, four years after the disease claimed his mother’s life, Lassiter found himself on dialysis and trying to get on a donor list for the new kidney he needs to survive. But even that is only a temporary fix.
“When my mother passed, it turned my life upside down. I didn’t expect it, and for a year and a half I was basically a walking shell. It really devastated me,” Lassiter said. “My mom was one of the strongest people I have ever met, and she had been dealing with this for a while. But she never let us know what she was going through. … Now I know.”
After working in the casinos for several years, Lassiter became a firefighter and an EMT 13 years ago because he thought “helping people and protecting property” was a very honorable job.
But the disease is starting to take its toll.
“I have my ups and downs; it is really hard on the body,” he said. “I definitely feel better that my blood isn’t poisoned because my kidneys don’t work. But it definitely drains you.”
Unable to work full duty, Lassiter had to leave his job as an EMT and is relegated to doing fire inspections for the city. But he said he is lucky to still be able to do that.
“I am very fortunate. I very easily could’ve been without a source of income and the job that I love,” Lassiter said. “But it is still hard feeling limited. Sometimes I come in here and see my firefighter brothers doing their full jobs and I feel guilty. They don’t make me feel guilty, but I want to be with them.”
And even though Lassiter did not let his colleagues know what was ailing him until a few months ago, it has not gone unnoticed.
“Monday was not a particularly good day. Charles wasn’t able to complete his shift; it wasn’t possible,” Foley said. “You see it, everyone sees it.”
That is why the department — along with several area police and fire departments, EMS squads, local businesses and private citizens — is trying to help.
Lassiter has insurance but pays all of his co-pays and ancillary medical expenses out of pocket and is running out of sick days.
So far — through a pair of charity basketball games against the Camden Fire Department, a bake sale held by Lassiter’s former EMS Squad at Shore Medical Center and other donation efforts — more than $2,500 has been raised for the cause. And Foley said he hopes a golf tournament scheduled for May 16 at McCullough’s Emerald Golf Links in Egg Harbor Township will bring in at least another $5,000.
“We hope the community will continue to care about this. Because in the line of work we do, we work for the community and we put down our lives for the community and we do it without any idea of who may live here or if we know them. The alarm rings and we go; there’s never a question asked,” Foley said. “And this is a guy dealing with real issues and a debilitating disease that could cut his career short, let alone anything else. Times are tough; we’re not expecting all this influx of money. But if anybody can help — and not only help, but also enjoy themselves by playing a little golf or just coming out to eat — it is needed.”
This generosity puts the already soft-spoken Lassiter at a loss for words.
“The physical part of this disease is one thing, but the mental part of it is another,” he said. “Everyone coming together to support me and show me love in this way helps me with the mental part of what I’m going through.”
And it helps him spend more time focusing on his family.
“I worry about my kids. I worry about them all the time,” Lassiter said of how the disease could potentially impact his daughters’ lives. “I just wish it were something where we knew that we were doing something wrong. But it’s hereditary.”
But Lassiter still finds time to smile.
When asked what the most difficult thing he has dealt with is, his mood lightened, and he replied through a smile and laugh: “It’s got to be raising three girls.”
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If you want to help
For information on how to help, call the Pleasantville Fire Department at 609-484-3667 or send donations to Pleasantville Local 2616, P.O. Box 1179, Pleasantville, NJ 08232. A golf tournament is scheduled for May 16 at McCullough’s Emerald Golf Links in Egg Harbor Township. For more information, email Pfd2616charities@gmail.com.