Vermont hospital has first honor walk to celebrate organ donors

On Aug. 23, staff at Burlington-based University of Vermont Medical Center silently looked on as Elizabeth "Libby" Hanzl D'Avignon was moved from the intensive care unit to the operating room.

Ms. D'Avignon, a registered organ donor, was having her heart, lungs and kidneys transplanted into others. She saved four lives.

The tribute marked the hospital's first honor walk to celebrate the life of a deceased organ donor. It involved more than 150 hospital staff, including clinicians and facilities workers, as well as family members.

"Libby's honor walk was an incredibly powerful beginning to the healing process and coming to terms with losing my Libby," said Robb D'Avignon, Ms. D'Avignon's husband. "The aura of all those wonderful people lining the hallways seemed to come together into something you could actually, physically feel."

The idea for the honor came about as the hospital sought more ways to support donors and families.

Jennifer DeMaroney, organ donation coordinator at the UVM Medical Center and The Center for Donation and Transplant, said the hospital already flies a "Donate Life" flag under the American flag for a week in front of the hospital after a donation that is then given to the donor family. It also has "moment of silence" cards that staff read in the operating room before an organ recovery surgery. The cards include information about the donor's life, such as their likes and dislikes, provided by family and friends.

"Anything to make it even more personal because for anybody who is involved in donation, it's a passion. We do it for the donors, their families, and the recipients. Having that connected purpose makes us feel so good," said Ms. DeMaroney.

Still, she said the hospital was looking to do more. That's when UVM Medical Center staff saw a Facebook post from Cincinnati-based LifeCenter Organ Donor Network about honor walks. Ms. DeMaroney spoke with the organ operations director at the network about how to implement an honor walk at her hospital.

Eileen Whalen, RN, president and COO of the UVM Medical Center, who also serves as chair of The Center for Donation and Transplant board, subsequently gave authorization to move forward, and the first honor walk took place Aug. 23.

Since then, a Facebook post about the tribute has generated more than 900,000 views and more than 1,100 comments.

"It's gotten an amazing response on social media," Ms. DeMaroney said. "There are people who are saying their loved ones were donors or that they or their loved one are a recipient. It's also become a way for people touched by donation to talk to others who have also been affected by donation and to get support."

The hospital plans to continue doing honor walks, although it is still working to identify the best notification process for staff so they can participate. So far, three honor walks have taken place, including two others in September.

"It is deeply moving to see our employees come together to show their compassion for our patients and families in this way, and it serves as a reminder of what a privilege it is to work with so many talented people who give the best of themselves every day in service to others," Ms. Whalen said. "Libby's family is thrilled with the response to her story, and we join them in hoping the attention being paid to it will result in many people deciding to become organ donors. Going forward, the honor walk will be offered to every donor family, and we will notify all staff each time we hold one of these walks."

Ms. DeMaroney said other hospitals have reached out asking about the effort and for information on how they can do something similar. She highly recommended that organizations continuously do such a tribute, if they don't already.

"It is so powerful for families to see all of the hospital staff supporting them, but also it brings the hospital staff members together and allows them to be part of this process in real time … It really is our way of saying 'thank you' to our donors and their families," she said.

 

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