Brian Yohe, right, poses with friend and fundraiser organizer Craig Copas. The effort has raised about $6,000.
Brian Yohe, right, poses with friend and fundraiser organizer Craig Copas. The effort has raised about $6,000. (Submitted Photo)

When Craig Copas came to York from Philadelphia over Thanksgiving break, he said he almost didn't recognize his best friend.

He and Brian Yohe met about 15 years ago, and the two remained good friends.

But they hadn't seen one another since July 4, and a lot can happen in that time for Yohe, 47, who was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis a couple years ago.

The disease, which affects the liver's bile ducts, has worn him down, leaving him with immense fatigue and weight loss over time.

When Yohe walked through the door over the holiday, Copas couldn't believe the man was his best friend. In just a few months, the disease's progression was physically unmistakable.

"Really, it was just a real shock to me," Copas said. "I probably wouldn't have even recognized him if I hadn't known it was him coming in."

Yohe is now in need of a liver transplant, the only cure for the terminal disease. As the process of finding a donor crawls on, the West York resident faces medical expenses, hospital readmissions and the agony of waiting.

But a core group of friends and family has teamed up to save its friend, brother and role model.

Support: Copas, a high school teacher, got the idea to start a fundraiser from one of his students who began a Kickstarter to fund his own college education, asking donors for just $1 and managing to raise a significant amount of money.

Copas decided to create a fundraising page for Yohe using GiveForward, asking friends to donate $2 instead of sending him a Christmas card this year.

"Initially, what I thought was, 'If we could raise $2,000, that'd be amazing,'" Copas said, multiplying his 900 friends on Facebook by $2.

The effort has raised more than $5,600 in two weeks, shattering his expectations.

"It's what put me into the Christmas mood, definitely, to see all this outpouring of support for him," Copas said.

And for Chris Schroeder, another longtime friend, the fact that the 100-plus donors range from family to acquaintances to strangers says it all.

"The kindness of people has just been great. I think it restored Brian's faith in mankind. Just seeing everybody's generosity, it really helped him and cheered him up a little bit," he said. "So now we just need to give him a liver."

The disease: When Yohe was first diagnosed, he expected to need a transplant about 10 years down the road - the average for a patient with the disease, Schroeder said.

"We were not expecting the disease to progress this fast," he said.

But Schroeder has witnessed that progression: The tubes that drain bile from Yohe's liver often cause infection when they're changed and exposed to air, landing him in the hospital, he said.

And Yohe, who used to be known for his love of food, has lost somewhere between 75 and 100 pounds during his illness, Shroeder said. He used to travel and go out dancing, but he doesn't do that anymore, he said.

To get that life back, Yohe must either receive a donated liver or a piece of one from a living donor. Amazingly, the liver can regenerate itself, and just a piece of the organ from a matching donor would be enough for long-term treatment.

The process of finding that match is extensive and time-consuming, but that isn't stopping friends from trying. In addition to a financial contribution, Bryan Tate, a friend of Yohe's since sixth grade, said he and his husband are waiting to hear back from Hershey Medical Center to see if either one of them is a match.

"Our gift to Brian is one that we hope will help support his life," he said.

Giving back: When reflecting on the type of person Yohe is, his friends echo each other: He's a kind man who'd do anything for anybody.

"He's the sweetest, most kind person I've ever met," Copas said.

Schroeder said Yohe is a selfless person who rarely speaks negatively of anyone.

"He's like our father figure," he said. "I've always called him 'papa' because he holds the group together."

The support donors have shown for Yohe has been overwhelming, Schroeder said, and he cherishes every donation, big and small.

"He's always given to everybody, and this is our way of giving back to him," he said.

Tate said fellow members of the Spring Grove Area High School Class of 1985 have also come together to support their friend.

"We just love the guy. ... And I think Brian's hanging in there. He's a tough guy, and he's doing what he needs to do to survive," he said.

To donate to or show support for Brian Yohe, click here. The fundraiser ends Jan. 1, but organizers said they will accept donations as long as they can.

- Reach Mollie Durkin at mdurkin@yorkdispatch.com.