Inspiration: The Gift of Life

As he plucked the unconscious child from the blazing inferno, little did he know that his gift of life would be repaid 20 years later.

Photo by Doug Baines.

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Impulsively Jacob darted down the hall without his partner, disappearing into the flames. “It was weird because the instant I made the decision to run down that hallway a second later it seemed I was in front of the door, and it was already ajar.” As flames shot out of the apartment like fireballs he could see a little boy lying on the floor in just about the only spot that wasn’t on fire. “I didn’t even have time to figure out if he was alive or dead,” says Jacob. “I just grabbed him and rushed out.” Jacob and the boy cleared the fifth floor landing just as the fireman could hear the sound of the floor above crumbling.

The tense crowd below broke into cheers as they saw Jacob emerge from the building with the boy. With Kris pressed up against his chest, Jacob could feel the boy’s heart pounding, and when he coughed from the smoke, Jacob knew Kris would survive. Paramedics tended to the boy while Jacob himself collapsed. Jacob was a hero, but little did he know how his unselfish decision on that memorable day would affect his own life some 20 years later.

Two weeks after the rescue, Jacob had two visitors appear at the station—Kris and his mother, Maria. They had come to thank him and told him they were forever in his debt. “They said they would repay me a life,” says Jacob. “I was pretty stunned. It was a nice gesture, but I figured they would soon go about their lives and forget about me.”

But Kris and Maria never did forget. Maria made sure her son visited Jacob at least one day every week after school. “He would bring me food from his mom or a candy bar, just something to say thanks,” recalls Jacob. “But he did it just about every week, which amazed me. He didn’t have a father so I guess I kind of became a good influence on his life as well. After a few months we really became friends.”

As the years went on, Kris continued his weekly visits. By this time the two were spending time with each other outside of work as well. “I used to take him to Cubs games and to a movie every once in a while,” says Jacob. “He was always a great kid.” A few years later Jacob married, started his own family and left the fire department to start his own insurance company. Kris joined the Army, then went to college, but the two remained in touch, writing letters and talking on the telephone, and still taking in a Cubs game at least once a year. Kris eventually graduated from college and became a teacher.

At age 37, Jacob was diagnosed with diabetes. And despite treatments and diet, the disease began to deteriorate his kidneys until, by age 43, he was diagnosed with end-stage kidney failure. With two children in high school and his wife pregnant with a third, it was not a good situation. “I was really devastated,” says Jacob. “I’d saved a lot of people in my years as a firefighter and after that I was a pretty good husband and provider. But for the first time in my life I was really scared, and I didn’t know what to do.”
With no brothers or sisters and his wife the wrong blood type, Jacob was forced to depend on a donor kidney from the bank of available kidneys. Just when he needed it most, none were available. “I really didn’t know where to turn. That’s when I got Kris’s call.”

It was time for Kris and Jacob to take in their yearly baseball game, and so, expecting a day at the park, Kris called only to hear that Jacob was on his deathbed. “I answered the phone and I remember thinking I didn’t want to tell Kris what happened. But my wife said it would be wrong to keep it from him. I barely got the words out when he asked me what my blood type was. I told him, and he said he’d call me right back.”
As Kris contemplated his friend’s unfortunate situation, his thoughts kept returning to that fateful moment years earlier when he looked up and saw his hero Jacob’s face as the flames roared all around him. He knew had it not been for Jacob, he would not be alive today. Now Kris could finally repay the favor. He knew what he had to do.

Within an hour Kris was at Jacob’s doorstep with a lifesaving message. “He comes to the door and says, ‘It’s your lucky day, I’m the same blood type, and I’ll bail you out of this one,’” remembers Jacob. “I was in shock—and he says, ‘I’ve got two kidneys, and you can have one.’”

At first Jacob resisted putting his young friend through the trauma of having a kidney removed. But when medical tests confirmed Kris would be the perfect donor and with time running out, Jacob accepted his generous offer. “I really had nowhere else to turn. He told me he loved me like a father and it was the least he could do for me.”

The operation was a perfect success.

“Jacob says we’re even now,” says Kris. “But the truth is he was there all my life to help me make decisions and give me guidance and support. I’m just glad there was something I could do to pay him back for saving my life.”

Jacob and Kris both went on to live happy, healthy lives in Chicago. Kris became an English teacher. Jacob retired and devoted many years to volunteering his time as a counselor for inner-city programs for underprivileged children until he passed several years ago.

Best of all, Jacob and Kris kept their special promise to go to a Cubs game every year.

Excerpt from Triumphs of the Heart by Chris Benguhe.

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