From the Chaplain’s Study #1: April 17, 2024

One of the most powerful and sacred experiences of hospital chaplains is companioning families through the process of deciding and arranging for the donation of a loved one’s organs. Typically, the patient has experienced a sudden and unexpected event – such as a traumatic injury or a massive cerebral hemorrhage – from which no recovery is possible. Sometimes, the patients have indicated on their driver’s licenses that they want to be organ donors. Other patients have discussed their desire to donate organs with their families, who are able to say, “Yes, this is what they would have wanted.” And sadly, every now and then the parents of a young child or teenager decide that in death, the loss of their beloved child will provide gifts of life to others. 

Organ donations can be redemptive, giving meaning to an otherwise meaningless tragedy. Prospective donors are identified by their medical teams, who then begin a conversation with the family. If the family seems receptive (or if the patient’s intentions are clear), a team from the organ donation network meets with the family to explain the process and answer questions. Chaplains are often asked to attend these meetings, to offer emotional and spiritual support as families make one of the most consequential decisions they will ever make. If their decision is “Yes,” the patients remain on artificial life support while they undergo extensive screenings to determine the health and compatibility of their organs. Prospective organ recipients are identified, and organ procurement surgery is scheduled.  Surgeries typically happen in the early morning hours, when operating rooms are most available. 

At Gundersen, as patients are rolled from their rooms for surgery, staff on the ICU gather silently along the hallway, heads bowed, to honor the patients and their families as they depart. Chaplains are often invited to participate in these Honor Walks. Many families ask for a prayer or blessing as they gather around patient beds for private “goodbyes.”  My remarks and prayers always mention, “This is a moment of both great sadness and great joy. For those here, it is a moment of grief. For those who are being prepped to receive these organs, it is one of the most joyful moments of their lives.”  At the end of the hallway, when the elevator doors close to take patients to the OR, family members and friends are escorted by chaplains to the front of the hospital, where a large green and yellow “Donate Life” flag is raised on the flagpole. For those present, this can be a transformative experience.

April is “National Donate Life Month.” If you have never considered being an organ donor, please do that. Talk with your family and friends to let them know this is what you want. And if you have already signed on as an organ donor, thank you!

This is the first post of From the Chaplain’s Study, the occasional blog of Rev. Greg Jones, who is a staff chaplain at Gundersen and an affiliated community minister at UU La Crosse.