Nurse Travels to Rose Parade to Support Donor Family

April Thums in front of the Donate Life float at the Rose Parade on Jan. 1, 2015 in Pasadena, Calif.

In August 2010, April Thums was a newly certified organ donation requestor at Aspirus Wausau Hospital when a tragedy began to unfold: Alan Zinda, 22, was brought to the hospital's emergency room after a car accident. April, an intensive care unit nurse, responded to the "trauma red" call and began caring for both Alan and his frantic family.


Doctors eventually declared Alan brain dead, and April explained to his family what that diagnosis meant. She approached them about organ donation, and they told her he had signed up as a donor when he received his driver's license.


"I think it was helpful for them to know this really was Alan's decision," she says, "and they were confirming his request." Ultimately, five of his organs went to three recipients, one of whom was an Israeli man who needed a new heart.


Because Alan was April's first donation conversation, she found herself reflecting on his case often over the next few years - especially after an Israeli film crew made a documentary about Alan and the man who received his heart. "His case was interesting to me, so it stuck with me," she says.


In 2014, she learned that Alan was to be one of the 72 organ donors honored on Donate Life's float in the Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif. UW Organ and Tissue Donation (UW OTD) sponsored his family's trip to the parade and held a send-off ceremony at Aspirus Wausau Hospital in November, and April made a point of being there. It was the first time she had seen the Zindas since Alan died four years earlier.


"I remembered their faces like it was yesterday that we had taken care of Alan," she says.


April decided to schedule a trip to Pasadena to see the float. She had two purposes: She wanted to see Alan's face on the float, but she also wanted to purchase a flower to put on it in memory of her father, Norman Thums, a cornea donor.


So she made some last-minute schedule adjustments and flew to California with her fiancé at the end of December. She spent several days wandering around the area, making frequent visits to the float-building barn to talk to the people there. She watched as the float's creators assembled florographs (flower portraits) of the donors around the float, chatting with their family members and with some of the 30 recipients who would be riding on the float and the 12 living donors who would be walking alongside it.


Then, she watched the parade - and was floored by the response from spectators. "People told me, 'The Donate Life float is the one that everybody looks forward to.' It's so interesting to think how many people are touched by the donation process." April also was able to talk to the Zindas again, who were watching the parade just down the street from where she was sitting.


The experience has become another opportunity for April to promote organ donation. Inspired by her story, several of the people she has told about her experience have registered to become organ donors at the Donate Life Wisconsin/Donor Registry.


"This was an opportunity of a lifetime," she says. "I made memories that will stay with me forever."