McCrabb: A new emotional gift tries to comfort organ donor families in Middletown

It’s 40 inches by 60 inches, embroidered with 12 words arched around a heart, and will spend the rest of its days draped over the back of a chair in someone’s living room.

For something that appears so unassuming, what strength this throw may bring to a grieving family whose relative chose to be a deceased organ donor. It may serve as a daily remember of the generous act — make that the greatest gift — of their loved one to save others’ lives in their death.

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At Atrium Medical Center, a team designed a memorial throw that will lay across a person as they’re being wheeled out of the intensive care unit into transplant surgery. It then will be presented to these special families, like a symbolic tricorner shaped American flag that once draped over a casket.

The white throw is embroidered with the words "Remember me for the life I give for the life I've lived."

Last year, there were four deceased organ donors at Atrium, and there has been one so far this year, according to the LifeCenter Organ Donor Network in Cincinnati. In Ohio, 1,641 people received organ transplants, and of those, 298 came from living donors last year. So far this year, 766 organ transplants have occurred, and 134 came from living donors.

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Atrium will be prepared for its next deceased organ donation.

The hospital’s first memorial throw was recently made by Atrium volunteer Kathy Farler, who runs Thread Bear Designs out of her Middletown home. The embroidery takes no time at all, less than 30 minutes, but Farler hopes the meaning of the words lasts a lifetime.

“Very honored,” Farler, 73, said recently. “I hope it brings good memories.”

Pastor Ed Bastien, manager of spiritual care at the hospital, said it’s important for the families to leave the hospital with a material reminder of their loved one.

He called the throws “a tangible acknowledgement of that moment” when the organ donation was made.

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“I wanted something of substance, something physical they could take away,” he said. “They don’t have that loved one, they don’t have that, Lord help us, a baby when they leave empty-handed.”

But he quickly pointed out about the throw: “This isn’t a substitute.”

The throw will be presented to the family following the Honor Walk, the final walk a family takes together as the patient is moved from ICU to the operating room to become an organ donor. Previously, families had referred to this walk with their deceased loved one as “the loneliest walk.”

An Honor Walk is a powerful sight. Staff from every department of the hospital somberly stand shoulder to should in silent honor of this patient, their family, and the life-saving decision they made. A doctor’s white coat next to the maintenance man’s blue shirt next to an executive’s suit and tie next to a nutrition service employee in a hair net.

Bastien remembers the first time he participated in an Honor Walk at Atrium. He said that “everything that could stop, stopped” in the hospital during the Honor Walk.

“It’s extraordinary,” he said. “It’s a challenge to lose somebody.”

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What adds to the trauma, he said, is when family members see vital signs of their loved one on the monitor and they’re breathing on a ventilator.

“It’s a lot of work for them emotionally,” Bastien said. “We want to acknowledge the power of that moment.”

The pastor then makes a short and powerful statement over the hospital public address system: “Someone incredibly important and special has died.”

There’s a moment of silence, then the walk continues.

The family follows the body right to the operating room where they say their final goodbyes.

His message to those families? “There really are no words to express the gratitude that we feel for what they’re willing to do,” Bastien said. “Even their death had meaning.”

Farler said when her mother-in-law died, the family was given a throw. She looks at it daily, and it’s a reminder of a life lost.

“It touches your heart,” she said. “You don’t ever forget.”

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