40 From Our 40: James & Cheri Forslund

Cheri and James Forslund smiling in the Ronald McDonald House

In 1975, Jim and Cheri Forslund were awaiting the arrival of their second child; their firstborn, Ericka was 16 months old. Life was good. So good that Cheri had recently talked to her grandmother and shared just how perfect their lives were and their excitement at the new baby’s arrival. Cheri said, “I’ll never say those words again.” When baby Michael arrived in September of that year, the Forslunds immediately noticed something was wrong. Michael was soon diagnosed with Hallerman Streiff, a rare syndrome that presents as physical deformities and causes a myriad of challenges, including difficulty eating. Their world was starting to turn upside down.

When Cheri went into labor with Michael, Ericka spiked a fever of 104, and they later noticed her eyes began to cross. Doctors examining Michael said they were more concerned about Ericka at that point and began tests. The doctor soon returned with tears in his eyes to share the test results. It was some form of cancer. He had contacted Dr. Robert Baehner at Riley Children’s Hospital (now operating at Riley Children’s Health) who advised the Forslunds to go straight to the hospital. Ericka was admitted and began treatment. Michael’s treatment soon followed.

Six months later, as was often the case with pediatric cancer in the 1970s, Ericka passed away, one week shy of her 2nd birthday. For the last six weeks of Erika’s life, Cheri never left Riley Children’s; alternating only between working to feed Michael, who could not nurse or swallow, and comforting Ericka. Cheri was simply trying to stay functional.

After Ericka’s passing, Cheri shared, “When the unthinkable happens, you can go to bed, drink, and take pills, or do something positive. She was our only daughter and our firstborn. I decided the only thing to do was fight.”

Cheri had developed a bond with Dr. Baehner and asked what parent group she could join that was raising money for pediatric cancer research. As Dr. Baehner was unaware of such a group, Cheri asked if there was another parent that might be interested in joining her to organize one. The doctor suggested Pam Evans, whose son Rob had passed away a year earlier from Burkett’s Lymphoma.

Pam and Cheri got together and as Cheri describes it as “We were just two moms in a condo. We talked about what we could do. We asked Dr. Baehner what Riley needed.” Thinking they might procure a few hundred dollars, he suggested books. The women had bigger ideas. They wanted every dollar they raised to fund research. Getting the green light from Dr. Steven Beering, Dean of the Indiana University School of Medicine, they filed the legal paperwork and in October 1976, founded Riley Cancer Research for Children (RCRC). “While we were doing this for Ericka and Rob, it was for every child, so the name resonated.”

The day after RCRC’s kick-off event, Michael passed away. He was 17 months old. Genetic testing showed no connection or pattern between Ericka and Michael’s health issues. Sadly, the Forslund’s first two children’s conditions were simply a medical anomaly. Doctors shared that Jim and Cheri could have healthy children. When Michael passed away, Cheri was eight months pregnant and one month later, a healthy son, Richard, was born. Their fourth child, Dan followed in 1979. Cheri remembers, when each of the boys turned two, “We celebrated; it was a milestone we hadn’t experienced.”

Dealing with loss and grief is something many Ronald McDonald families have in common, and it is never easy. Though well meaning, families that have not personally experienced the loss of a child may struggle to support friends. After both Ericka and Michael passed away, Cheri and Jim recall, “People did not know what to say to us. That meant hearing well-meaning people say things like ‘at least you had them for a while, you’re so strong.’ Those are the worst things to say to people suffering from the loss of a child. We had no choice but to be strong. Better to just say I’m sorry.”

Cheri channeled her anguish into RCRC. Word was spreading and other parents were joining, like former Indiana Republican Party Chairman Gordon Durnil and his wife Lynda. The Durnils had spent a great deal of time at Riley Children’s with their son, Guy, and understood the importance of the cause. When RCRC gave their first $100,000 to Riley, Cheri laughed with Dr. Baehner and said, “This doesn’t go to books.”

Through their work, Cheri learned of the Ronald McDonald Houses (RMH) that were springing up in Philadelphia and Chicago. She shared her findings with fellow RCRC volunteers and Dean Beering. He too, had lost a child and supported her continued investigation into the prospect of a local Ronald McDonald House. Many of the RCRC parents knew, from sleeping in a recliner next to their children in the hospital, what an impact a House could make. Several decided to simultaneously lend their efforts in beginning a Ronald McDonald House chapter in Indianapolis. Cheri discovered one of the prerequisites was a parent group. “We had that with RCRC.” Conversations with McDonald’s Regional Marketing Manager, Brenda Duncan, began and soon Cheri, Jim, and the Durnils took on simultaneous roles at RCRC and as founders of Our House, Inc., the first legal name for Ronald McDonald House of Indiana. Dean Beering joined as well.

Jim became the President of the first Our House, Inc. board in 1979. Jim explains “I was President because Dean Beering said it didn’t make sense for Cheri to be President of RCRC and Our House, Inc. at the same time, but she was a founder for both.”

Cheri says, “We learned the best way to raise funds was to share the message of the House with organizations that were collecting money and needed a place to donate it. Groups like Stansfield Circle, Sertoma, and Kiwanis gave year after year.” She, along with others, talked to groups large and small; “it was easier to raise money for the House than research; —it was bricks and mortar that people could get excited about that.” As history reflects, their mammoth efforts were successful, the money was raised, and the opening was slated for October 1982.

Jim recalls the night before the opening, the House was a flurry of activity with many volunteers cleaning and getting rooms ready for the next day. A young couple with a child at Riley Children’s came to the door. Hospital staff had told them the House was opening, but they were not sure when. The group initially turned the family away sharing that the House was to open the next day. As the couple turned to leave, Jim quickly had a second thought, “Are we nuts?” They welcomed the family back and assigned them a room.

The House held their official opening a couple of days later. Pam and Cheri were looking down from the second floor into the great room. Pam said, “Rob would be proud of the work we’ve done.” Cheri agreed and said, “we got this done, now we must get back to research.” Today, she declares, “we did it for our kids.”

By Karin Ogden

Heart & Hearth Summer 2022