As Bryant Pfaff was wheeled to the operating room at New Hanover Regional Medical Center, staff members, shoulder-to-shoulder in different-colored scrubs, lined the hallway. Bryant’s mother, father, sister and wife walked with him toward the double doors, where they would say their final goodbyes.
Bryant had died at age 36, and his last action on earth was donating his organs. His wife, Lyndsey Pfaff, said Bryant had undergone acute kidney failure and said if he could save someone, he would want to donate his organs.
In 2018, 31 donors donated 83 organs at NHRMC. The number has grown over the years, and it is both inspiring and troubling. We can take pride in knowing that 31 people got the message that organ donation saves lives. But we also must recognize that every donor represents a life taken too soon.
Like many before them, Bryant’s family had attended a small ceremony in front of the hospital, where the Donate Life organ donation flag was raised in his honor. For years, NHRMC, in cooperation with Carolina Donor Services, has held ceremonies for donors’ families who want their loved one to be recognized.
The Honor Walk, though, is a new way for NHRMC staff to show their appreciation for the sacrifice made by organ donors and their families. Bryant’s family was the first at NHRMC to be honored this way.
The idea came to fruition, in part, because of the efforts of Kinsey Sorrell, a new graduate nurse who was doing her rotations in the intensive care units. Kinsey and her teammates were feeling the weight of a rough stretch of days and had been unable to give closure to Bryant’s family.
Bryant had made his wishes known, so his family knew his organs would be donated. But the organ recovery was delayed by weather and emergency surgeries that were beyond the control of the ICU or OR teams.
Kinsey knew her team needed a morale boost, so she asked her manager, Neta Greenlief, about the possibility of staging an Honor Walk for Bryant and his family. At the time Neta was the chair of NHRMC’s Organ Donation Committee, which works closely with Carolina Donor Services. The group had discussed the possibility of doing Honor Walks and had talked through a plan. They had not settled on an implementation date, however.
Understanding the emotional needs of Bryant’s family and her own staff, Neta gave Kinsey the green light to pull together the ceremonial walk.
Through texts and emails and word of mouth, Kinsey got the message out to as many staff members as she could. The surgery was scheduled for just after shift change, so many team members stayed after their shift to honor Bryant and his family.
Cristine Schiavelli, an operating room nurse, helped transport Bryant from the ICU to the OR. She helped the transport team navigate the hallways, staying focused on her primary objective – the care of the patient.
“When doing surgeries is your job, you have to put the emotional part behind you until the case is complete,” Christine said.
The family, however, couldn’t mask their emotions.
“We were so touched. All we could do was cry,” said Veronica Pfaff, Bryant’s mother. “They were lined up all the way to the operating room. We were touched so much that they cared and respected Bryant enough to do this. It was the most beautiful thing. It made us feel so warm and grateful.”
Lyndsey, a dialysis nurse, held Bryant’s hand during the Honor Walk – the ink from their matching tattoos lined up at the wrist. When Bryant entered the operating room doors, Lyndsey watched his chest rise and fall for the last time.
That’s when the finality of her loss overwhelmed her. Her knees buckled, and nurses rushed over to offer consolation and to help her to the exit for some fresh air.
Kinsey, who worked as an Emergency Department technician at NHRMC before graduating nursing school, had spent several 12-hour shifts with the Pfaff family.
“Being there for the family was a rollercoaster of emotions for me,” she said. “To see us all come together, and for the staff to support the family in that way, that was very special.”
“They were all so compassionate about what we were going through,” Veronica said. “They were amazing. All of the nurses were absolutely wonderful.”
Veronica went on to praise the work of Eric Pugh and Carolina Donor Services. She said she recently received a letter stating that Bryant’s organs saved two lives.
And NHRMC continues to stage the Honor Walk for donors and their families whenever it is possible. Most families are touched by the outpouring of love and compassion from the NHRMC team. But the walk is valuable to the team, too.
They get to respectfully acknowledge the noble sacrifice of a person who died too soon. For a grieving family, that’s something to cling to.
Learn more about organ donation, living wills and medical powers of attorney at NHRMC.org.