Faces attached to healthy bodies lined the hallways of the ICU. Quiet conversations seeded the background with a few abruptly stifled laughs. The tone of voices moved from nonchalant to a low and sorrowful heavy thread that pulled us all together.
This was the beginning of what we call our “Honor Walk.” It is reserved exclusively for those patients who at one time or another throughout their short or long lives determined that if anything happened to cut their lives shorter, they would donate healthy organs to needy recipients.
The family of the young man was clustered outside the door of his room. Most of the visitors were young, probably about his age. Most were wearing a very sober demeanor, a look that was foreign to each one. This, for many present, was the first death they had ever experienced, and it happened to be a brother, a cousin, a friend. So unlikely.
One voice rose above the others and asked for the streams of staff and family to turn to its source. It was the patient’s pastor. “We come here today to honor this young man and his desire to give of himself, literally, his very human body to benefit those who would die without it. We do not know why God chose to take him home. We may never know why, but we do thank and honor him today for his generosity. When he told others in his family of his desires, he probably believed that either it would be years and years down the road or that it would never happen. Who would want the organs of an 80-year-old? Instead, his gift of life will make certain that someone will have a chance to go to their prom, learn how to drive, stay alive to watch their child grow up, attend a concert or simply live from day to day without struggle.We say goodbye for now, but not forever.”
The pastor’s voice broke several times during his prayer, which affected many standing in those lines as they listened to his comforting words. Tears began to flow. Sniffling could be heard in various places along the river of people.
Several moments later, the patient appeared at the end of the hallway, still on life support. He was lying on a gurney and being wheeled down the center of the hallway, ever so slowly. Alongside him were his family--his mother and father, siblings, a best friend. Following him were more friends, more relatives, probably a girlfriend mixed into the line of those who loved this young man.
One young woman was carrying the love blanket that was given to the family and placed over the patient the day before. Another young woman, bookended by two friends, began to experience a panic attack and had to be removed from the queue. She was attended by three nurses and another nurse who specialized in essential oil treatment. The scent of lavender wafted up and encircled those standing nearby. A wheelchair appeared out of nowhere. The young woman was wheeled out and on so that she could accompany the other mourners.
One elevator held the young man and his two attendants and began the descent to the first floor. The other members of the group took the visitor elevators several feet away from the patient elevator, meeting in the same hallway as he was pushed outside to a waiting ambulance to be taken to another hospital for the removal of his once life-giving organs.
Family and friends gathered in the hallway with their faces pushed up against the glass, hoping for one last look at their friend and son, grandson, brother, cousin. The ambulance pulled away as the faces also pulled away and began to look at one another. Talking was now allowed, and they began to speak to one another in low and unrecognizable words. Those of us who watched from a distance could almost guess what those words would have been if we had been able to hear them.
Staff members slowly returned to their jobs, their desks and their tasks. This event was something that could not be left at the door when they left for the day. It would be something that they would carry home, something that would invade their dreams and their thoughts when they looked at their children or brother or friend.
It is right and good, albeit sad, when an elderly person who is suffering passes. It is part of the life cycle and is to be expected. But when a young person dies, in an instant, from something that gives no hint or no visible proof of demise, it is unfathomable. When he was wheeled down the hallway, he looked to be a very healthy and vibrant young man. The only hint of illness was the tube coming from his lungs.
Denial will enter the heart and soul of each person who knew this man probably even those who did not. It will sit deep within and refuse to budge for a very long time like an animal protecting its bearer, protecting its young.