Vern: An Honor Walk for a Donor Hero
The Honor Walk that took place on December 14, 2018 was reminiscent of the same walk that many veterans make after landing from their Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. Dozens of people lined the hospital’s hallways as a group of people slowly made their way from the intensive care unit to the operating room. The bed they surrounded did not hold a veteran on his way back home from seeing the war memorials, however—it held a donor hero on his way to give his last and best gift. And, it was the perfect send-off for his family, friends and community.
Three days earlier, Vern’s family could not have imagined they would be taking part in such a meaningful walk. He had suffered a sudden neurological event that left him unable to recover. They were gathered as a family at the hospital and sent someone to check his driver’s license at home. Sure enough, it had an orange dot—signifying that he was registered as an organ donor. Rachel, a donation support specialist, came to talk to them about their options. “I told them, ‘If we can support each other, we can create miracles,’” says Rachel. “‘We have steps in place to ensure we’re finding the most perfect home for these gifts.”
Vern and his family chose the gift of life and the next few days became a vigil. Hospital staff brought in all the available chairs on the unit, and his family sat with him day and night while they waited. “We as a family grew so much closer,” says Dottie, Vern’s wife.
In the meantime, there was much going on behind the scenes. This was this particular hospital’s first time facilitating an organ donation and staff members were very concerned about making sure everything went smoothly. The organ procurement staff provided extra support during that period, sending a clinical coordinator to the hospital so staff would have an ever-present point of contact.
The morning of Vern’s organ donation, hospital staff (many of whom stayed after their shift had ended), family, friends and community members lined the halls to give Vern the send-off he deserved on the way to the operating room to give the gift of life. He was wearing his favorite golf shirt and hat and a love letter from his wife Dottie lay beside him on the bed. “Yes, there were tears,” says Dottie. “But my heart is lighter because of this.”
After saying goodbye to Vern, his family members and a crowd of about 100 people gathered at the hospital’s flagpole as staff raised a Donate Life flag. Then, the family asked anyone who cared for Vern to sign a golf ball and they took turns hitting the balls into a field in his honor.
As a result of Vern’s gift, the ripple effect of organ donation has spread far and wide. His family asked Rachel to speak about organ donation at his memorial service. Following the memorial service dozens of people posted on social media that they had just registered their donation decision in Vern’s honor. The hospital posted a video about Vern to its Facebook page; at the time this story was published, it had more than 28,000 views. “I’ve had the honor and privilege to serve more than 100 families who are experiencing one of the most difficult things they will ever face—losing someone they love,” says Rachel. “I knew from the instant I met this family that something special and incredible was going to happen because of Vern’s decision to register as an organ, tissue and eye donor.”
For Vern’s family, the whole experience was heart-wrenching, but also comforting. “This is just the perfect ending of his life,” says his daughter, Shelly Hough, “because he’s still giving and that’s what he did his whole life.”