On the overcast morning of July 24, the family of Staff Sgt. Chris Enns accompanied their loved one down the hallways of Mat-Su Regional Medical Center to the surgery department where, in front of hundreds of people that had come to the hospital to attend the Hero Walk in Chris’ honor, they said goodbye to their husband, son and brother for the last time.
Enns had served three tours in Afghanistan as a medic with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, and had recently been working as a firefighter in the Mat-Su Valley. Military members who he had served with saluted him as he was escorted to surgery with an American Flag lying across his bed.
A few days earlier, his high school sweetheart and mother of his two children, Amber Enns, had found her husband unresponsive due to an idiopathic cardiac arrhythmia, otherwise known as a spontaneous irregular heartbeat, which had caused Chris to stop breathing and lose brain function.
Enns, who had lived his life by the motto, “so others may live,” had expressed a desire to be an organ donor upon his death, so when tragedy struck on July 19, his family knew exactly what his wishes would be.
“We were so lucky to have a family that was like, ‘Let’s make something good out of something so terrible,’” said Holly Rawlings, a Donation and Family Advocate from Life Center Northwest, the organization who was in charge of Chris’s organ recovery.
Falling under the criteria to be a donor is very rare, according to Katherine Pliska, the Public Affairs Officer for LCNW. A person has to either be considered brain dead or have a cardiac death, where the heart has stopped beating or is beating in a way that is unable to sustain life.
The patient is then referred to an organ procurement organization by hospital staff members who are trained to recognize a possible candidate for organ donation.
Once a person is declared a potential donor, a team of nurses and staff fly to the location to run blood tests and find organ recipients as well as surgical teams to recover each donation upon the day of surgery. As soon as they are removed, those organs are rushed by ambulance to the airport where they are flown to transplant centers all across the nation. The process is a 24-hour-a-day job for the whole team until the case is closed.
“At the same time that Chris is going into surgery, multiple families have been notified and they’re going into their respective surgeries too,” Rawlings said.
Up to eight recipients can benefit from a single organ donor, and in Enns’ case, four people received his lungs, liver and both of his kidneys. His heart and pancreas were donated to research centers to be used for education.
Those last moments are always full of ceremony and respect, according to Rawlings.
It is common for hospital staff to line the halls to watch as the patient is wheeled from the Intensive Care Unit to the Surgery Unit in a tradition referred to as a Hero’s Walk. After the family says their parting words, the donor is taken into surgery where multiple teams are waiting to operate.
But before the procedure, a moment of thankful silence is taken.
“We have a donor acknowledgement and we thank Chris and his family for their gifts and hope the recipients not only enjoy their restored health, but honor this gift as they go about their lives,” Rawlings said. “It’s a pretty incredible way to start the surgery.”
Four to six weeks after the operation, the family will receive a letter in the mail containing the basic information from the organ recipients such as age, gender and a recovery update. At that point both parties may choose to meet, an occasion that can create a life-long bond, according to Pliska.
Rawlings has had three cases at Mat-Su Regional, and this time she was able to bring a Donate Life flag, which was flown for the first time in honor of Enns.
“Everyone from our bedside nurse, to our team, to the COO just coming out and meeting the family, like I don’t even know how to say thank you,” she said.
The Life Center Northwest headquarters is located in Washington, but they also recover organs in the states of Alaska, Montana and North Idaho. In 2018, the organization worked with 271 organ donors, from which they were able to provide 878 organs for transplant.
Alaska residents who wish to be an organ donor can register online at: alaskadonorregistry.org/ADRPublic/. Representatives from LCNW encourage people to talk about this decision with friends and family to eliminate the possible element of surprise.
Mat-Su Regional Medical Center is your community healthcare provider; a 109-bed facility with a wide range of inpatient and outpatient care, diagnostic imaging and emergency, medical and surgical services. Mat-Su Regional Medical Center also offers a sleep lab, cardiac catheterization lab, wound care, an off-site urgent care facility, robotic surgery and advanced total hip replacement procedures.