How one retired soldier saved four lives in a day

After tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, army veteran Chris Forthman had seen so much evil in the world. No wonder the greatest act of kindness started with him.

Rebecca Cherry, left, 56 years old, educator, Bronx, NY; and Chris Forthman, right, 35 years old, veteran, Tulsa, OK

Chris Forthman isn’t like most people. Where others ask, “What’s in it for me?” the 35-year-old veteran wants to know, “How can I help?” Perhaps it’s the result of growing up the son of an Oklahoma preacher in a family where “Love thy neighbor” was as much a house rule as making your bed.

No doubt the five years Chris spent in the army, deployed to Iraq and then Afghanistan, had an effect on him, too. In Iraq, enemy mortar fire killed his roommate in their compound. It’s not something he likes to talk about.

They drill into you, ‘Look out for each other.’ You get that sense of duty in the military, you know.

Chris Forthman

After the army, Chris moved to New York City, where he found work as a driver on a ride-sharing app. One night, relaxing at home, he saw a TV show about a cancer-stricken character who receives a blood-marrow transplant from her sister. Chris, whose own mother had battled cancer a year earlier, got a jolt of inspiration.

Even as a veteran, Chris still feels a strong sense of duty.

I took the train up to Montefiore and walked in. I was like, ‘What do you guys need?’

Chris Forthman

A month later, the hospital called: would Chris be interested in a four-way kidney donation procedure? His application, they explained, had opened the opportunity for a rare “domino” transplant involving four patients with willing but incompatible donors. Chris would give his kidney to a man whose daughter would give her kidney to a woman whose son would donate to a compatible recipient, and so on. Chris said yes on the spot.
 
The surgeries, fittingly, were scheduled for Veterans Day.

Rebecca Cherry was the second-to-last recipient. A 56-year-old daycare worker, she had stage-three kidney failure as the result of hypertension. Her illness made every day a struggle.

Even Rebecca was starting to lose faith in finding a donor.

I was in a dark place...my body was swollen. It took a lot out of me to walk a block.

Rebecca Cherry

Dialysis made things easier, but Rebecca knew that wasn’t a long-term solution. She simply had too much to do. She prided herself on never missing work. She loved to play with her grandkids and travel with her husband, Lawrence. Active in her church, she volunteered frequently and taught Sunday school. The domino kidney transplant chain started by Chris gave her back the fullness of her days.

Post surgery, Chris has a renewed passion for life and fantasy card games.

It’s been five years since the transplant surgeries, and the recipients are all healthy and well. Chris, meanwhile, is back in Tulsa. An avid gamer, he’s found a passion for live-action role-play and fantasy card games. But, to this day, the best game he ever played was a round of dominoes with four strangers. Everybody won.

Rebecca looks forward to a full life again, thanks to Chris. 

Chris is the person who saved my life. If he didn’t have an interest in doing something for America, for the people, I could still be on dialysis right now.

Rebecca Cherry