It is a walk defined by heartbreak – escorting a deceased loved one down a hospital hallway to the operating room where they’ll become an organ donor. Known as the honor walk, it is also defined by hope – for the lives the heroic donor has the potential to save.
At Erlanger Health System, I lead the team responsible for organizing each honor walk. Each April marks National Donate Life Month – a time where we reflect on donors’ life-saving gifts and celebrate their heroic legacies.
The walks usually happen in the aftermath of tragedy. It is the medical reality of organ donation that most people become donors after unexpected death, such as a drowning or fatal car accident. All efforts are made by the Erlanger team to save the victim’s life, but sometimes it is not possible. The family is in shock as they process what has just happened.
A family care coordinator at Tennessee Donor Services – the nonprofit responsible for making lifesaving organ and tissue donations possible – meets with the potential donor’s grieving loved ones and helps them understand the donation process.
Sometimes the patient is already registered as a donor. Sometimes, especially in tragedies involving young children, the family is asked to consider donation. Once the decision to donate organs is made, it is my role to speak with the loved ones about the honor walk. This is the ultimate way to memorialize an organ donor, who can save as many as eight lives with their gift.
Each honor walk is personalized for the donor and their loved ones. I helped one family place washable dye on their daughter’s hair to honor her love of punk-rock hairstyles. I joined a mother in passing out green stones to our staff since her child loved the color green. Often, we play lullabies for infant donors or the first dance song from a donor’s wedding.
Organ and tissue donation is always a race against the clock. It involves more than 200 healthcare professionals, often across multiple states and hospitals. Yet, we always take the time to pause during the honor walks and pay our respects to those who make transplants possible: donor heroes and their families who say “yes” to donation.
It is a deeply soulful journey that wraps families in love and gratitude. As we make our way to the operating room with the donor, the first responders of organ donation – family care coordinators, ICU nurses, transplant nurses, hospital executives, non-clinical staff and medical staff – line the hallway to thank them for the gift of life.
I invite you to walk in spirit with these donors and their families by registering to be an organ donor. In the United States, more than 100,000 individuals are awaiting a transplant; 3,000 Tennesseans are currently on the waiting list.
This Donate Life Month – and every day after – each of us has the power to be a hero for others. Please take a moment and register at the Be The Gift Today website.
Tiffany Farr, RN
Erlanger-Tennessee Donor Services Liaison and the Chair of the Organ Donation Advisory Committee at Erlanger