An unlikely match
After his service in the U.S. Marine Corps and before the start of his career at an Amazon warehouse, Chris Dempsey chose to do something that scared him. He went to a hospital on a winter day and let surgeons remove half of his liver.
They transplanted it into a woman Chris hadn't even met when he heard she was dying and decided to get tested to see if, by some longshot, he might be the match she urgently needed. He was.
The transplant worked, and the woman recovered. That, by itself, would be a happy ending. But there's more to this story — so much more that there's now a TV movie about how Chris and the liver recipient met, liked each other, spent more time together, fell in love, and got married.
"I never thought in a million years any of this would happen," Chris said.
The circumstances behind the marriage made it newsworthy, so wedding photos of Chris and Heather Dempsey are all over the internet — on news sites from Illinois, where both the bride and groom grew up, to London’s BBC and many outlets in between.
From the start of the media interest in their romance, Heather and Chris saw a chance to open more people's minds to the value of becoming organ donors. And now, after what Chris described as the "awesome, absolutely surreal" experience of meeting the actors portraying him and Heather and getting to watch them filming, he said, "I just hope people who see the movie recognize the impact that they can have on a family or somebody's life just by signing up to be a donor, or becoming a living donor."
The same goal drives the outreach work he and Heather do in person when they show up at farmers markets and other community events to hand out flyers and chat about their own experience when people stop long enough to chat.
"If we can reach one person, they can change somebody's life," Chris said. "Heather got Facebook messages from people saying that they are now organ donors because of our story."
"It was really rewarding to hear that," Heather said, "because emotionally, after a transplant, it's really hard. When you're out of that fight-or-flight mode, I went through a grieving process where I was really angry afterwards, and then I was highly anxious. I felt guilty. I felt guilty that my parents, my family, everyone saw me so sick, and they had to witness that. I felt guilty thinking of all the people, hundreds of people, that died, and I didn't."
Signing up to be an organ donor amounts to "the ultimate way to help somebody out," Chris said. "You get to save somebody's life."
I felt guilty that my parents, my family, everyone saw me so sick, and they had to witness that. I felt guilty thinking of all the people, hundreds of people, that died, and I didn't.
With her new chance at life, Heather decided to go back to school to become an occupational therapy assistant. She graduated in May and recently took her state licensing exam.
Chris is one of the managers at the Amazon fulfillment center in Monee, Illinois. Eighteen months in, "I couldn't be happier working there," he said. "When I heard about this, I was working in just kind of an office job. I didn't really like being behind a desk all day. So this was like the greatest opportunity that could have come along."
As someone who says his four years in the Marines "pointed me in the right direction, made me the person I am today, and taught me a lot," Chris appreciates being in a workplace with many fellow veterans. Amazon employs more than 18,000 veterans and military spouses in the U.S.
"You find out that they were in the service, and there's just that instant connection." All in all, he said, "I can see myself at Amazon until the day I retire."
At home, Chris and Heather's next big dream is to become parents. Simple, ordinary joy is what they crave after living through the whirlwind of illness, transplant, and unexpected romance. "I mean, yeah, it was a fairytale story," Heather said. "It's an awesome story. It's our story. But I don't know. When I was sick, it was like, Oh God, am I going to make it to Christmas? Am I going to make it to my next birthday? That was my mindset, just trying to make it through. And for all of this to happen, it's truly a blessing to be alive and to have met Chris and to get the attention out there about organ donation. But I don't feel any pressure. We're just a normal couple."