April 20, 2023

Flag-raising event honors selflessness of organ donation

Organ donors and their families were saluted recently at Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s annual Donate Life Flag-Raising Ceremony.

Pam Helmlinger, with her husband, Kelly, and 4-year-old son, Ryland, who received part of Kyle Fisher’s liver, speaks at VUMC’s Donate Life Month Flag-Raising Ceremony.
Pam Helmlinger, with her husband, Kelly, and 4-year-old son, Ryland, who received part of Kyle Fisher’s liver, speaks at VUMC’s Donate Life Month Flag-Raising Ceremony. (photo by Susan Urmy)

by Matt Batcheldor

Eighty-five individuals donated their organs at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in 2022, more than any hospital in the nation, and they and their families were saluted on April 14 at the annual Donate Life Flag-Raising Ceremony.

“The selflessness of these donors and their families enabled 243 lifesaving gifts to people waiting and hoping for another chance at a fuller life,” said David Raiford, MD, Chief of Staff for Clinical Affairs, to the crowd assembled at the flagpole on the VUMC Plaza. “These recipients are our friends, our family members, our mothers, our fathers, our children, our neighbors.”

In addition to the organ donors, 162 persons donated tissue, Raiford said, enhancing the lives of recipients through tissue transplantation.

The ceremony, the first held in person since 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, was part of a national effort to raise awareness about the need for organ and tissue donors. In addition to honoring organ donors and their families, the ceremony salutes hospital staff who care for donors and transplant recipients. The event is a partnership between VUMC and Tennessee Donor Services, the federally designated donor network that facilitates organ and tissue donation in the region.

“Today, we thank all donors for their remarkable courage and celebrate their gifts,” said Teresa Hobt-Bingham, MSN, RN, associate nursing officer for Surgery, and chair of the VUMC Organ Donation Advisory Committee.

The event — including the raising of the Donate Life flag — featured remarks from the family of a deceased donor, the recipient of that donor’s organs, and a living organ donor.

Fredia Fisher, RN, clinical director at Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital (VWCH), shared the story of her son Kyle Fisher, who donated his heart, liver, kidneys, lungs and tissue in 2019, saving six lives in the process. She recalled the moment when she reached into his wallet and saw the red heart on his driver’s license, indicating that he wished to be an organ donor.

“That is what started giving me peace,” she recalled.

“Because I knew that I may not have my son around long term, but at least he can make an impact and save someone else.”

One of those was a 4-month-old boy named Ryland Helmlinger, now 4 years old, who received part of Kyle’s liver. His father, Kelly, held him while his mom, Pam, recalled what a blessing Kyle’s liver was when her son was dying of liver failure and desperate for life.

Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital staff raise the flag at the hospital’s ceremony last week.
Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital staff raise the flag at the hospital’s ceremony last week. (photo by Susan Urmy)

“We’re so thankful to have a miraculous testimony for our son and the opportunity to advocate for organ donation, because he is still here,” she said. “We know not everyone who is waiting will receive a gift of life before it’s too late, and we cannot imagine where Ryland would have been had Kyle not made an early decision in his life to become an organ donor. The surgeons, multidisciplinary team and God’s provision and all the details saved Ryland’s life, but it was because of Kyle that we matched, Helmlinger.”

Living liver donor Beverly Fite shared her story of her gift of life to her brother, Dan, in 2022. By donating part of her liver at Vanderbilt, the resulting partial livers in her and her brother regenerated to become fully functional organs.

“Working with you all to get my big brother a new chance of life is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, and I would absolutely do it all over again,” she said.

Living donors and deceased donor families were called by name in a solemn ceremony recognizing them.

“What an honor and privilege it is to be here today to personally thank all the families,” said Deanna Clapper, associate director of Tennessee Donor Services. “It’s your gifts that we’re here to celebrate, and we thank you.”

“The act of donating organs and tissue would not be possible without the team of doctors, nurses and support staff here at Vanderbilt working alongside our donation professionals at Tennessee Donor Services,” said Seth Karp, MD, H. William Scott Jr. Professor, chair of the Section of Surgical Sciences and director of the Vanderbilt Transplant Center. “Without you, organ donation could not be possible, and lives could not be saved with transplantation. We’re grateful for your hard work and dedication. Our teamwork saves lives.”

On Wednesday, April 12, VWCH hosted a ceremony in honor of National Donate Life Month and raised a flag to signify their support of tissue and organ donation.

David Blankenship, who had a heart transplant at VUMC in 2017 as result of viral cardiomyopathy, shared his experience and said he “wouldn’t be here today” without organ donation. Blankenship received support for a gallbladder attack at VWCH, which is closer to his home.

In 2022, 18 people donated tissue to VWCH. Those donations brought vision to the blind, healing to burn victims and mobility to those with bone and joint conditions. VWCH also accepted organ donations from four patients, saving nine lives.

The Vanderbilt Bedford Hospital Donate Life flag raising ceremony was held on Friday, April 14.

Vanderbilt Tullahoma-Harton Hospital conducted the Donate Life Month flag raising ceremony on Monday, April 3