Johnny Nicholson


By Beth Lawrence


The Balsam/Willets/Ochre Hill Volunteer Fire Department is holding a benefit supper and gospel singing to help one of its own.

Fire Chief Johnny Nicholson has been diagnosed with stage 4 nonalcoholic cirrhosis of the liver as a result of fatty liver disease and requires a liver transplant.

“Johnny has been sick over a year now and dealing with this issue and finding out that he is in need of this liver transplant, so we’re putting together this benefit to help pay some of his medical expenses and some of the costs that he will incur,” said Randall Moss, chairman of the board for the fire department.

Nicholson has been a firefighter in Jackson County for 38 years and has been chief of the Balsam Fire Department for 25 years.

He and his wife, Joanna, had been coping with his health issues and visiting doctors trying to put a name to his symptoms.

“We really didn’t know the diagnosis until December when we went to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, and they figured out what was wrong” Nicholson said.

That was when the couple found out that a transplant was needed.

The liver aids with digestion and helps remove toxins from the body.

Fatty liver disease causes fat to build up in the liver interfering with the organ’s ability to function, causing inflammation and cell damage that leads to scarring. It may lead to cirrhosis and the need for a transplant.

Nicholson has been on the United Network for Organ Sharing transplant waiting list since June.

The doctor’s visits to find a diagnosis and the testing required to receive a spot on the UNOS waiting list have taken their toll financially and emotionally. The bills include a series of pre-transplant tests and doctor visits.

“Financially it’s very expensive, you know how the doctors are now, and we had to go through a series of tests in Charlotte,” he said. “It’s really been a toil for us.”

The couple chose Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte to perform the procedure because the organ recipient has to be able to reach the hospital transplant team within five hours. 

CMC is approximately three hours from Sylva.

Nicholson has had one false start during his wait.

He received a call that UNOS had found an organ match. The couple traveled to Charlotte, and he was in pre-op preparing for surgery when he found out the liver was not viable.

“That was really a letdown for us,” Nicholson said.

He has not asked a family member for a live donation to give part of their liver because the procedure is hard on the donor and carries a risk of complications. Nicholson said he would not be able to forgive himself if his donor did not survive or developed complications.

Nicholson credits his wife for making a difficult time easier for him. He calls her his nurse.

“Joanna has done everything for me. She has cared for me,” he said. “I have to stay on a low sodium diet. She took care of that, took care of all the food preparing, made sure I had the right medicine.”

While on the UNOS list, the potential organ recipient must work to keep themselves as otherwise healthy as possible in order to remain a transplant candidate.

Nicholson was touched and surprised that the other firefighters at Balsam stepped up to support him both emotionally and financially.

“We’re like a family down there, and we try to take care of our own people,” he said. “I knew these guy were that kind of guys who would do something like this. It means everything.”

He also expressed gratitude to the spouses of Balsam firefighters for their support.

Brian McMahan, assistant chief at Balsam and county commission chairman, spoke with great respect for Nicholson as a person and a chief.

“Johnny is a great leader; he is very compassionate,” McMahan said. “(He) has a heart for helping people, has a huge heart and loves helping people, and that’s what it takes when you’re a volunteer and you serve your community in the capacity that we do.”

The benefit will be Saturday, Sept. 28, at Balsam/Willets/Ochre Hill Fire Department from 4-8 p.m. at 36 Mt. Pleasant Church Road.

The gospel groups Carolina Crossmen, Faithful Pilgrims and Turning Home and have donated their time and will perform for an hour each.

Barbecue sandwiches, hot dogs, chips, desserts and drinks will be served at a cost of $10.

A number of prizes from a chainsaw to a load of gravel will be raffled off for $1 per ticket.

“People will have the opportunity of going around the room and we will have prizes set up that they (can) purchase tickets for,” Moss said.

All prizes and services have been donated by local merchants and vendors.

For information or to donate call 586-3756.

Nicholson is out of work on disability, but he hopes to return as soon as possible following the transplant and recovery.

He wants to remind the public to take care of their wellbeing and not take it for granted because health can be gone quickly.

To become an organ donor visit, or register as a donor when renewing a driver’s license.