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Community Hopes to Save Former Firefighter’s Lungs

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DES MOINES, Iowa -- A softball coach is fighting for his life after an injury in his former career is catching up with him.

Garland Shirley is used to defeating opponents.

“My softball players are like family. They've helped my focus and get through a lot of things,” Shirley said.

When he became a Des Moines firefighter in 2004, it was a passion Shirley finally fulfilled.

“The camaraderie, having the ability to help people when they are on their worst day -- that was something I really enjoyed,” he said.

And it showed.

“You could see that from day one when he arrived at the fire station,” said firefighter Dan Lamb. “Nobody had a bad word to say about Garland Shirley."

While he often helped save the lives of other, a training exercise at Gray's Lake in 2007 is now slowly killing him.

“At some point in the time I was in the water, I aspirated some of the ice water into my lungs and it caused a lung injury that they call anestacial pneumonia,” Shirley said. “Typically from diagnosis to death of pulmonary fibrosis is three to six years, and I was diagnosed in 2007."

Doctors say a lung transplant will only hold off the inevitable, but a recent trip to California offered an alternative for stem cell harvesting treatment.

“They say it has positive effects. A lot of people have seen improvement. I get along really good now and the possibility of increasing my lung capacity is something I’m looking forward to,” Shirley said.

But the treatment is not covered by his insurance.

“Whatever the cost it's going to be, I’m going to try to get there,” Shirley said.

So in typical fashion, his Des Moines fire-fighting buddies are first to respond

“Anything we can do to help Garland,” Lamb said. “He gave everything he had to the city of Des Moines, and we are trying to give back to Garland now."

The Des Moines firefighters are donating to an a online fundraiser for Shirley to help pay for his care. But despite the help from his community, Shirley doesn't shy away from reality.

“I suffered an injury on the fire department that will eventually be the reason why I die,” he said.

But there's another victory the coach hopes to fulfill -- one without regrets.

“I have a grandson on the way. I’d like to be active in his life,” Shirley said.

Shirley’s daughter created a GoFundMe page, which is raising money for the treatment. Shirley’s loved ones hope they can reach their goal before high school softball begins so he can get back to coaching.

Shirley said he doesn't regret his life as a firefighter.

"If I could go back and do it again, I'd do it agin. To have the opportunity to help somebody else is the best thing a person can do."