'This room becomes sacred.' The heroic and heartbreaking journey of one organ donor's body

INDY STAR | Shari Rudavsky
At right, Steven Ashley and other organ recovery coordinators communicate constantly during procurement surgery, with transplant centers, research centers, recipient hospitals and others involved in the complex process. (Photo: Jenna Watson/IndyStar)
The woman lay draped and still on the operating table, while nurses and surgical techs bustled around the room, placing surgical equipment on the tables surrounding her. As the surgeon moved closer to the patient, a tall man in scrubs stepped forward and cleared his throat.

“Time out,” Steven Ashley said, and the room fell silent.

He read a few words about the woman no one in the room knew, but who was the reason they were there that night. He shared personal messages from her family, including a few inside jokes, and then pulled a laminated card from his pocket.

“Remember,” he read, “this room becomes sacred when a family entrusts us with one of their most precious possessions.”

The middle-aged woman on the operating table, he reminded everyone, was both dear to her husband, children and other family members, and a hero. To honor her, he said, everyone in the room should conduct themselves as “though the family was present.”

Then, there was a moment of silence, heads bowed, eyes down.

Most surgeries do not begin with such a preface. But this was no routine surgery.

Although the woman on the operating table continued to breathe with the help of a ventilator, she had been declared dead a day earlier. Continue reading