April is National Donate Life Month, a time to honor and celebrate people who have donated organs and tissue to help save the life of another. Staff members at Kaiser Permanente medical centers across Northern California pay tribute to those patients in what is known as an Honor Walk.
The symbolic ceremony takes place in the medical center when the patient who has passed is wheeled into surgery for the organ donation. Physicians, nurses, and staff join the family members and friends of the patient in lining the hallway for the solemn, meaningful moment.
“It’s an incredible gesture to honor our patients and their families for what they are doing,” said Rebecca Thiel, RN, an Intensive Care Unit nurse at the South Sacramento Medical Center. “We can support the family as they say their final goodbyes and recognize the importance of organ donation.”
“Knowing your loved one lives on through someone else is the most honorable thing you can do for yourself and everybody who loved that person.” – Olga Sanchez
Thiel was inspired to create the Honor Walk program after her sister donated her 1-year-old daughter’s organs after her death. Part of the ceremony also includes the lighting of the “tree of life” in the hospital, and a blanket designed with a special patch is given to the family.
A son who saved 2 lives
Olga Sanchez’s 18-year-old son Alex was one of the first patients recognized in an Honor Walk at the South Sacramento Medical Center. Six of his organs were donated after his death.
“To see all those nurses and doctors in the hallway showing their support for our family was the most beautiful thing we could ever have seen or experienced,” Sanchez said of the 2019 event.
Although many patients choose to be an organ donor before their death, that choice is sometimes given to their family, which was the case for Sanchez. She was initially unsure of the decision, but today, the mom of 2 said she feels “blessed” to have given her son the gift of giving life to 2 other people.
“Knowing your loved one lives on through someone else is the most honorable thing you can do for yourself and everybody who loved that person,” Sanchez said.
The importance of organ donation
According to Organdonor.gov, there are over 106,000 people on the national transplant waiting list, including more than 23,000 in California.
According to Donor Network West, 1 organ donor can save up to 8 lives and heal as many as 75 lives through eye and tissue donation.
“The act of donation is truly miraculous and an incredible gift,” said Christine McGahey, RN, trauma program director at South Sacramento.
McGahey said the Honor Walk holds many different meanings for families of the organ donor. It can serve as an act of closure, a final act of kindness, and a way to increase awareness of the lifesaving act.
Honor across Northern California
Honor Walks and other ceremonies take place throughout Kaiser Permanente Northern California, each with distinguishing elements.
When a member donates an organ at the Kaiser Permanente Redwood City Medical Center, the Donate Life flag outside the hospital is raised and family, friends, nurse leaders, and staff gather around the flagpole for a moment of silence.
Kaiser Permanente Sacramento began its Honor Walk program in 2020 and also has an Organ Donation Action Team, a group of critical care nurses dedicated to increasing awareness and education among staff of the importance of organ donation.
The Kaiser Permanente Richmond Medical Center also participates in Honor Walks.
How can you become an organ donor?
Most people can be an organ donor. You register by putting your name on your state’s donor registry. There is no age limit, and you can choose to donate an organ, eye, or tissues, such as a cornea or skin.
For more information about becoming an organ donor, visit donatelife.net.