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Feb 12, 2020

The honor walk

Co-produced with PRX Logo

A new ritual called an honor walk is bringing solace to families who’ve lost a loved one and consented to have their organs donated. Hospitals are organizing these walks as a way to honor the gift of life that will be passed on to those who will benefit from transplants. This episode is a follow-up to Reveal’s show “Lost in Transplantation.”

Credits

This week's podcast was produced by Tina Antolini and edited by Taki Telonidis. Special thanks to Dexter and Danielle Criss and Reveal's Laura Starcheski.

Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Original score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, who had help from Amy Mostafa and Katherine Rae Mondo. 

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: Before we get started with today's show, we wanted to let you know that a story that started right here on Reveal is now heading over to TV. Reveal reporter Trey Bundy has been exposing a child abuse coverup inside the Jehovah's Witnesses religion since 2015. The result is the Witnesses, a two night television event that shows what happens when a powerful institution protects its reputation instead of protecting kids. You can see it on the Oxygen network. The Witnesses premiers Saturday and Sunday, February 8th and ninth at seven and six central. For more information about how to watch, go to revealnews.org/witnesses.

 

Al Letson: From the center for investigative reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. In our last episode, we looked at the challenges of getting organs to patients who are waiting for them. After heart or kidney or livers recovered, there's a rush of activity to get that organ to the person whose life depends on it. Now we want to focus on what happens just before that flurry because that promise of life means someone has died.

 

Dexter Chris: My name is Dexter Chris. I am a full professor at SUNY Plattsburgh and Dalton is my son. He is the third of three children.

 

Dexter Chris: Dalton is mostly known because he was an outstanding wrestler here in upstate New York. He was such a kind person to everyone that he wrestled. He would win and then pick them up off the mat. You know, he's just that kind of guy. Dalton graduated from high school June 2019. He was going to major in criminal justice there at SUNY Plattsburgh and he was going to also minor in music as well as history. He loved history a lot.

 

Dexter Chris: August 19th, the day of the accident, changed everything for the Chris family. Barbara, my wife, and Dalton were coming from work, so they actually worked together at the resort and they were maybe six miles from the house. It seems that Dalton dozed off and crossed the median, went down into a little drainage ditch, but that drainage ditch was just enough to send the Jeep that they were driving airborne.

 

Al Letson: Dalton's Jeep ended up hitting a house. He hit his head in the force of the crash. Barbara was badly injured too. They were both unconscious.

 

Dexter Chris: I got the phone call and when I got there, both Barbara and Dalton were next to each other. And to look at them, there was no reason to think that Barbara was going to survive, and was no reason to think that Dalton wouldn't survive. It just looked like he was fine and Barbara was not.

 

Al Letson: They were both in such serious condition that they were air lifted from Plattsburgh to the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington. They were just rooms away from one another in the ICU. After Dexter and his daughter Danielle arrived at UVM, doctors explained that it was Dalton who was more seriously hurt. His neck had been broken in the crash. His brain had bled so much he was suffering a series of strokes.

 

Dexter Chris: Now I'm being told that Dalton was not going to make it. I remember that like it was yesterday and just like it was yesterday, I couldn't believe that's what they were saying, that he was not going to make it. I think it was Jennifer who found a quiet room.

 

Jennifer de Mar...: My name is Jennifer de Maroney and I'm the Oregon donation coordinator at University of Vermont Medical Center.

 

Dexter Chris: So when my daughter Danielle and I sat down, Jennifer presented to me Dalton's driver's license. So you can imagine, my son and my wife, they had cut their clothes away and their jewelry had been removed and all that kind of stuff. And in the midst of all that chaos, there is Dalton's driver's license. And she points out to me that he's an organ donor and I started to smile and cry and I said, yes, he is.

 

Al Letson: Jennifer explained she still needed the family's permission to make sure that Dalton's wish to be an organ donor was carried out. Dexter gave the okay.

 

Dexter Chris: And she said to celebrate this wonderful choice that my son made in others that find themselves given the organs, an honor walk has been established and UVM is one of those places where the person's last wishes can be carried out.

 

Al Letson: An honor walk is a new ritual being adopted by hospitals around the US. It takes place after a patient has died and just before their organs are recovered. It's meant to honor the gift they're making.

 

Jennifer de Mar...: An honor walk is when staff from all across the hospital come and line the halls between the ICU and the operating room as the patient and the family take their final walk all together before the donation.

 

Al Letson: UVM medical center started doing honor walks in August of 2018. Carol Maxwell is an intensive care nurse there.

 

Carol Maxwell: Before honor walks, sometimes the families would leave before we would bring their loved one's body to the operating room, and it felt kind of bizarre and lonely and strange.

 

Al Letson: After doctors made the official call that Dalton had died, hospital staff dove into planning the honor walk. Jennifer says they try to add personal touches to the walks whenever possible. They found out that Dexter was a director of a gospel choir, one that Dalton was involved in too.

 

Jennifer de Mar...: And so as we were planning the honor walk, someone said, "We should have a gospel choir here."

 

Dexter Chris: We were able to bring the gospel choirs that I direct.

 

Jennifer de Mar...: We were in the ICU and the timing of the operating room was about, I'd say 15 minutes away. And all of a sudden you could just hear, if you listen carefully, you could hear this beautiful music. And if it was loud you couldn't hear it. You needed to listen. And they were warming up and they were warming up with Amazing Grace.

 

Jennifer de Mar...: And it just immediately brought chills when you heard just something so beautiful in the controlled chaos of an ICU. So 15 minutes before we leave the ICU, a final pop up comes out on the computers. So everyone's computer gets a pop up that says in 15 minutes, the honor walk is going to be happening. At that point, we start lining everyone up. We had moved Dalton into his mom's room, Barbara, so that they could be together one last time.

 

Dexter Chris: So I felt it important that Barbara, if she had any level of consciousness at that point, would have the opportunity to touch her son's hand for the last time. And so Barbara, myself, and Danielle and Lakita, maybe my mom, I can't remember all the hands that were in this. But we all held hands together at that one moment.

 

Carol Maxwell: And as we came out of her room after that really touching moment, I could hear the choir singing and it just sent chills down my spine cause I knew that they all loved Dalton and loved Dexter and loved Barbara and that it was a very close community.

 

Dexter Chris: And they started to sing this song, All We Ask by Donnie McClurkin, and it's a beautiful song which talks about someone in their last days about to die. And the song is so, it resonates great with Dalton.

 

Jennifer de Mar...: And it was joyful at a really, really sad time. There was joy.

 

Carol Maxwell: The hallways were packed on both sides.

 

Dexter Chris: With not only friends, not only athletes that Dalton had known, but so many UVM staff.

 

Jennifer de Mar...: You see uniforms from all across the hospital.

 

Carol Maxwell: From housekeeping to folks who work in the cafeterias to doctors, to nurses and residents from all over the hospital.

 

Dexter Chris: To walk those steps behind your son and you realize it's literally two or 300 people in those halls. Now, that was amazing.

 

Dexter Chris: Take me home choir. Take me home.

 

Dexter Chris: (singing)

 

Carol Maxwell: We walked through the hallways and went through the operating room hallway to the door to where you have to be sterile to go in, and that's where we stopped and they finished singing there and gave the family a few minutes to say goodbye.

 

Dexter Chris: You know, I'm a fairly strong guy emotionally, but when you realize ... when you realize you're not going to see your son breathe again, when he's not going to be warm again, his heart's not going to beat again the next time you see him, that became final.

 

Dexter Chris: Next match. Win the next match. One more point. Get two, all right? Get two. Okay.

 

Dexter Chris: I guess the most uncomfortable part was after the honor walk is complete, you walk back down that hall. Now, that was the most shocking thing. People were still there. It's not like they said, "Okay, we're out." The honor walk is forward and reverse.

 

Dexter Chris: I think about if Dalton was not an organ donor, there would have been just, I shouldn't say just sorrow. There would've been great memories, but the very fact there's a legacy left to so many people after Dalton, there's a level of celebration that would not normally be there. Up to 50 if not more people that Dalton is able to help. According to a letter I received from the organ donation people there in Albany, New York. There is a young man, a father, 44 year old father who received a Dalton heart. That the 44 year old father, his family, his children, they're celebrating. The recipient of one the Dalton's corneas in Albany, the restoration of sight, to him that's a miracle. The person in Seattle, Washington who received Dalton's other cornea, same thing. That's such a celebration that deserves to be celebrated.

 

Dexter Chris: (singing)

 

Al Letson: Our story was produced by Tina Antolini. This performance of All We Ask is by the Plattsburgh state gospel choir, directed by Dexter Chris, Dalton's father. Our story was edited by Taki Telonidis. Special thanks to Daniel Chris and Reveal's Laura Starecheski. Victoria Baranetsky is Reveal's general counsel. Our production manager's Mwende Hinojosa. Original score and sound designed by the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man yo, Arruda. They had help this week from Amy Mostafa and Najib Aminy. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor in chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co production of the Center for Investigative Reporting in PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.