In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

March 1, 2021

Wall of Heroes honors organ donors, has special connection to family of retired nurse

By In the Loop

A new Wall of Heroes on the Saint Marys Campus recognizes blood, organ, eye, tissue and whole-body donations. The wall is also an extra-special honor for the family of Chris Kopp, a former Mayo Clinic nurse.

Chris Kopp has fond memories of her sister, Gail Paulson.

"She was a remarkable person. Her smile and contagious joy would light up the room. She taught us to enjoy the simple things in life, and she gave us love unconditionally," says Chris, who recently retired after 46 years as a Mayo Clinic nurse.

Gail was born with special needs. She moved to a group home when she was 19 and grew independent, living life to the fullest. She enjoyed many friendships, group activities, bowling, attending dances and spending time with family while playing a game of Uno or watching TV.

"She loved to be the winner and was excited to be No. 1 related to so many things," Chris says. "She loved her birthdays and was very proud to turn 65 in 2020."

It was also the year when Gail's health declined. She was hospitalized with an inoperable brain hemorrhage after a fall. Gail passed away on Jan. 1.

But her death provided Gail with one more opportunity to be No. 1 and in perhaps the most meaningful way.

First donor of the year

Gail Paulson was Mayo's first deceased organ donor of 2021.

"She would be thrilled," Chris says.

Gail and thousands of others are now being recognized by a Wall of Heroes, recently unveiled on the Saint Marys Campus of Mayo Clinic Hospital — Rochester.  The wall, which is between Admissions and the Emergency Department in the Mary Brigh Building, recognizes Mayo's support of transplant programs and aims to inspire guests to become organ donors.

Gail Paulson
Gail Paulson

The wall recognizes blood, organ, eye, tissue and whole-body donations. Chris says she is honored that her sister is part of this recognition.

"She was known for her tenderness and empathy for others. She had an infectious love for people. Of all her treasured gifts of this life, her greatest gift of all is the gift of life to another in need," Chris says.

Encounter with Sister Mary Brigh

There is an additional connection between the Wall of Heroes and Kopp's family.

Helen Paulson
Helen Paulson

The wall displays a quote by Sister Mary Brigh Cassidy, who was administrator of Saint Marys Hospital from 1946 to 1971. The quote reads, "We have only today in which to work, to pray, to dream, to plan and to help build a better world."

Chris says her mother, Helen Paulson, worked as an elevator operator at Saint Marys Hospital and had a special connection with Sister Mary Brigh.

One day in 1944, Helen, then 17, stepped out of her elevator to direct a visitor. To her surprise, the elevator door suddenly closed behind her, leaving her best friend stuck inside. Helen had to call her friend on the phone inside the elevator and instruct her how to run the controls.

Along came Sister Mary Brigh, who asked Helen why she was outside of her elevator.

"My mother was extremely nervous, but she explained, and Sister Mary Brigh seemed understanding," Chris says.

A big surprise came one week later.

"Mom was called to Sister Mary Brigh's office and feared she would be fired, but Sister Mary Brigh offered her a new job as a switchboard operator," Chris says.

Helen Paulson passed away in 2018, and she, too, gave the gift of life by donating her body to Mayo research.

Gail and Helen Paulson with Chris Kopp
Gail and Helen Paulson with Chris Kopp

Record-breaking year

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 proved to be a record-breaking year for deceased organ donation. And for those who benefitted from those donations.

More than 33,000 people in the U.S. received a lifesaving transplant from a deceased donor — an all-time high, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.

This trend also is being seen across the Upper Midwest and at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. The increase in donation is even more remarkable considering that those who die due to COVID-19 infection are ineligible to be donors.

For Chris Kopp, it's a selfless act of caring for one another.

"Our entire family has been honored to be part of donations at Mayo Clinic to help change lives," she says.

Like Kopp, there are many donors, living and deceased, with direct ties to the Mayo Clinic family. The Wall of Heroes is designed as a daily reminder to honor their gifts.

Tags: Community, Employee Stories, Patient Stories, transplant, Wall of Heroes

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