Heroism is in his marrow: FDNY firefighter’s donation saves Florida man given just six months to live

By Joe Kemp New York Daily News

 Christopher Howard, 31, stands in front of Engine Co. 255 in Brooklyn. Bryan Pace for New York Daily News

Christopher Howard, 31, stands in front of Engine Co. 255 in Brooklyn. Bryan Pace for New York Daily News

For one city firefighter, being a hero came by learning from his dad — a Port Authority cop who was killed on 9/11.

So Christopher Howard of Engine Co. 255 in Brooklyn didn’t hesitate to help when he learned his bone marrow could save an ailing Florida retiree who was given just six months to live.

And now, nearly two years later, 66-year-old John Ciempa — a married father of grown twins — is alive and about to meet Howard for the first time during a ceremony at the FDNY’s headquarters in Brooklyn on Wednesday.

“It feels amazing that I was able to give a father a second chance to be a dad,” Howard said. “Because I don’t have a father. So I know what that’s like.”

Ciempa told the Daily News, “I just want to give him a big hug. I’ve been extremely grateful that someone gave me the gift of life back.”

Ciempa was diagnosed with a rare medical condition, myelodysplastic syndrome — which often leads to leukemia — in early 2010, soon after he moved to Lakeland from his native New Hampshire. The doctors told him that without a bone-marrow transfusion, he would likely die within months.

But even when Howard, 31, was proven to be a match, Ciempa’s body initially rejected the stem cells.

“I was in the hospital for two months after (the transfusion) trying to stay alive,” Ciempa said. “I tried to keep positive. Every now and then, I’d get down in the dumps — but my family would come and lift me up.”

His daughter, Katy, often posted signs with positive messages in his hospital room and made sure Ciempa got exercise to strengthen his weak, 118-pound frame.

“She was a cheerleader,” Ciempa quipped. “They had me get up and walk around every day.”

After several agonizing weeks, the doctors came into his room with incredible news — Ciempa was going to live.

Howard said he didn’t know until several months later that his donation saved Ciempa’s life.

“I heard that they were doing well, but that’s all they told me,” he told The News.

The nine-year veteran firefighter said he was just grateful that Ciempa, a retired electrical and heating contractor, could continue being a father to his children, J.J. and Katy.

Howard’s father, George Howard, 44 — a 17-year vet with the Port Authority’s Emergency Service Unit at Kennedy Airport — died while responding to the September 11 attacks on his day off.

“Sometimes, I wish he was still around,” his son said.

Ciempa said the last time he saw the World Trade Center was when he pointed it out to his daughter from the highway while driving down to her Florida college.

Days later, the terrorist attacks killed almost 3,000, including the elder Howard, at the site.

His son continued to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming a city firefighter and signed up to contribute to the National Bone Marrow Registry — which has already helped 162 FDNY members donate stem cells.

“I had no idea I would have this connection with the towers,” Ciempa said.

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