SALT LAKE CITY — Firefighters are celebrated for saving people’s lives and protecting their communities, but sometimes that can happen in unexpected ways.

“My promise was that I wanted to be able to help anyone, anytime, in any place,” said Chris Thurman, a living donor of bone marrow and a veteran of the fire service of nearly 30 years, speaking Monday about a promise he made to himself when he first became a firefighter.

Thurman, who now works as a paramedic and firefighter for the Unified Fire Authority, said he started fulfilling the promise he made to his first fire chief by donating blood — as it turns out, Thurman was found to have a rare blood type and was asked if he would sign up for the bone marrow donor list, which he did without hesitation.

“Then, the phone call came,” Thurman said, explaining he was asked to donate his bone marrow to a man fighting leukemia. “I said ‘absolutely’ because at the time, I had an 18-month-old nephew who was fighting leukemia. My recipient’s wife wrote me a letter thanking me because her husband had only one wish, and that was to make it through the holidays that year, which he did.”

More than 6,000 people die every year waiting on the list for a lifesaving organ transplant, according to Donate Life America, a nonprofit with the mission of increasing organ donation rates and promoting a culture where organ donation is a “fundamental responsibility.”

Donate Life America and DonorConnect, a nonprofit dedicated to the recovery and transportation of donated organs, kicked off National Donate Life Month on Monday by raising a flag honoring first responders at the Celebration of Life Donor Monument in Salt Lake City, 297 E. 500 South.

“Eighty percent of all organ donors in Utah have been assisted and served by first responders — that’s pretty profound,” said Mark Dixon, DonorConnect’s director of public education and public relations, during the ceremony’s program. “Anyone who is an organ, eye or tissue recipient owes a debt of gratitude to the fantastic, heroic work done by our first responders.”

A three-man honor guard with representatives from Draper Fire Department, Salt Lake City Fire Department and Unified Fire Authority performed Monday’s flag ceremony.

Members of a joint honor guard from Salt Lake, Draper and Unified Fire post the American flag as DonorConnect kicks off National Donate Life Month with a flag raising ceremony at the Celebration of Life Donor Monument in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 1, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

According to Donate Life America, the Donate Life flag is a symbol of “unity, remembrance, hope and support” and can be displayed by anyone as a way to honor those touched by organ transplantation while raising awareness for how important organ donation is to those who find themselves waiting on the organ transplant list.

Henry Evans, a Park City firefighter who anonymously donated one of his kidneys in 2021 through the help of the University of Utah, also spoke on the impact of being a living donor and what drove his decision to become a living donor.

“We didn’t have kids, and we had a supportive fire department, so that gave me the opportunity to experience a few months of discomfort to completely change someone else’s life,” Evans said, adding that he was also inspired to donate by his wife’s decision to donate her own kidney to her aunt more than a decade ago.

Donate Life America and DonorConnect both encourage Utahns to sign up as an organ donor the next time that they go in to renew their license, something that the nonprofits both view as a civic responsibility. Thurman shared how a friend of his had a daughter who died by suicide a few years ago, but through donation, she was able to help 75 people.

“Being an organ donor on your license is the easiest thing to do to not only save one life, but a bunch of lives,” Evans said, agreeing with the sentiment that being an organ donor on your license is a civic duty for those who are eligible to donate. “It can turn what is a tragedy for one family into a new lease on life for another family, it can save a kid, it can save someone’s husband or someone’s wife — so for me, it’s a no-brainer to become an organ donor once you die.”