Walk of Remembrance Honors Organ Donors

Caren Shank was her late husband Steve's caregiver, supporter, and partner in raising awareness about causes he cared about, including organ donation. Even after his death, her dedication continues.

Steve Shank was good at doing hard things. Though legally blind, Steve played football and wrestled in high school, was a downhill skier and passionate biker. When his lungs failed, a result of Hermansky-Pudlak Syndrome, he spent 35 days on advanced therapy called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) before receiving a lung transplant at Mayo Clinic. And when new health challenges came, as they often do after transplant, Steve bore them with his trademark positivity. "Even when the data wasn't good, Steve was," Caren Shank says about her late husband.

Like Steve, Caren is good at hard things, too. She was her husband's tireless caregiver, enthusiastic supporter, and partner in raising awareness about the causes he cared about, including organ donation. Now she's learning to carry on that work alone. "I want people to know what organ donation did for my family and hope it will inspire others to check the box," she tell us.

Caren shared her family's gratitude for that gift at the fifth annual Walk of Remembrance, a National Donate Life Month event that paid tribute to organ donors, including Steve's donor, Tommy. The theme — "Life is a Beautiful Ride" — was especially meaningful to Caren, who walked Steve's bike in to the ceremony during a procession.

The event, held at Mayo Clinic Hospital, Saint Marys Campus, gathered donor families, recipients and patients waiting for transplant, and featured speakers who highlighted "the hard and the beautiful sides of transplant," Caren says. They included Rochester Mayor Kim Norton as well as staff from Mayo Clinic, the Gift of Life Transplant House and LifeSource. In addition, an advocate spoke on behalf of the family of Kari Koens, a Mayo Clinic staff member who donated her kidneys, liver and a lung after being fatally hit by a car while walking to work.

Advocates for organ donation hope sharing their stories at events like the Walk of Remembrance will help encourage more people to register as donors. While surveys by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have found 95 percent of Americans approve of organ donation, only 58 percent are registered as donors, the Rochester Post-Bulletin reports.

Tim Rasmusson was among that number. After his sudden death from an ascending aortic aneurysm, the 26-year-old registered organ donor was able to help others — a legacy that has brought comfort to his family. "One thing that brought peace in those early weeks was learning very quickly that two girls had received his corneas," his mother, Jackie, tells the Post-Bulletin. "One had his birthday."

Connections like that are part of what Caren refers to as "a rainbow" to donor families' grief, bridging the pain of loss with the deep meaning that comes from seeing something beautiful emerge from heartbreak. Donation gave the Shanks 834 extra days together — precious time that Caren says gave Steve's 6-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter "more memories with their dad. The gift of time with Steve was priceless and we knew it every day."

Learn more about the Walk of Remembrance here and register to become an organ donor here. Then be sure to leave us a comment below before using the social media tools to share this story with others.