9/11 Hero health crisisMarch 14, 2013
A 9/11 responder who raced to Ground Zero to search for survivors is now in a race to survive a life-threatening kidney disease.
Rich Volpe, an NYPD narcotics detective, heard the news about the World Trade Center attacks while off duty near his Westchester County home and made a beeline for the disaster site, arriving minutes after the second tower collapsed. He joined in the frantic digging for victims in the mountainous, smoking rubble.
“You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face,” he recalled.
Volpe worked until 3 a.m. and returned day after day. He spent the next six months at Ground Zero and Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, where he raked debris for body parts.
At 34, he was a musclebound fitness buff at the height of his career. But in 2002, he was diagnosed with IgA nephropathy, an aggressive disease that destroyed 60 percent of his kidney function in six months. He was forced to retire in 2004.
Dr. Alan Coffino, Volpe’s kidney specialist, says scientists think toxins in the respiratory system can trigger the ailment: “I’m highly suspicious that his Ground Zero exposure is the cause.”
Volpe’s kidney function has now dropped below 10 percent — and his plight is desperate. If he doesn’t get a transplant soon, he will have to go on dialysis, a grueling regimen that usually shortens the life span.
The timing could not be worse. Volpe, now 45, fell in love. He and his then-fiancée, Tina, booked a dream wedding in Italy this summer. They had to cancel those plans, but tied the knot with a justice of the peace in Mount Kisco last month.
“The wedding is not important — I just want him to be healthy. He’s the sweetest and most caring person I ever met,” Tina said. “I have to stay strong for him. We’re not going to give up.”
The couple’s hopes were dashed recently when doctors ruled out Volpe’s brother as a kidney donor because he has asthma, though he was a perfect match. His sister is not a match, but could give a kidney to someone else in a medical swap. Volpe needs a donor with Type O blood.
“It’s a rush against the clock,” Volpe said. “I have no idea what my future is. It’s all up in the air.”
Interested potential donors may contact Joan Kelly at Columbia University Medical Center at: