Autumn Harris guides families in crisis as their loved ones save and transform lives.
The young wife of a dying man asks his nurse about organ donation and Autumn Harris is right there with answers to her questions and so much more.
Autumn and her teammates in Gift of Life Michigan’s Family Services Department travel to Intensive Care Units across Michigan to do what most people cannot fathom: They spend time with families rocked by grief and talk with them about giving joy and life to others.
“Nothing motivates me more than knowing my work impacts so many other lives,” said Autumn, who has spent the last four years in hospitals with families and their tragedies.
Autumn was promoted this month to manager and – like Manager Anthony Honeywell – will now mentor others about how to best help families. As a talented social worker, she knows exactly what they need and when they need it, Anthony said.
“Autumn makes sure they’re in the best spot they can possibly be in before she brings up donation,” Anthony said. “She knows when it’s appropriate to talk and when she needs to just sit and listen.”
She’s also skilled at helping them understand what donation takes and – most importantly – what it gives.
“On the other side, people are waiting. If I don’t help this family give gifts, others might die tomorrow,” Autumn said. “That’s real and it’s powerful. It’s also a lot of responsibility. And when you make it happen, that’s everything.”
The Family Services Department advocates for donors, families, and the 104,000 patients on the transplant waiting list nationwide.
“This team has so much resiliency. They’re interacting with families on their worst days, and they never let one case or interaction affect the next one,” Anthony said. “And they will spend as much time with a family as they need.”
Autumn said it means everything to just listen to families talk about their loved ones, something she’s done for hours at a time. Sometimes, a personal touch like a bottle of water or a hug can be meaningful. Some families just crave quiet in their chaos.
“Sometimes they just want someone to sit with them in silence. That’s all they need,” she said.
Autumn has spent much of her tenure working in Detroit area hospitals, where donation is sometimes met with stereotypes and misconceptions. She’s been able to break through with families as an understanding educator. She tells them how each donor is treated with respect, dignity, and honor and that has been a breakthrough for many.
“That eases minds for families because they know their loved ones are safe with us,” she said. “A mother I spent three or four hours with said to me: ‘I trust you with my baby.’ Tears came to my eyes. It meant so much.
“This mission is bigger than me. Every decision one person makes impacts the lives of others, so we’re connected in ways we can’t even imagine.”
Autumn loves helping them understand and appreciate donation and she likes solving problems in busy ICUs to help move the complicated donation process forward despite any obstacles.
She also loves interacting with coworkers at the organization’s Ann Arbor headquarters and recalls attending a special staff meeting day just after she was hired in 2018.
“I went to the rooftop to enjoy the flowers and thank God for allowing me to be there,” she said. “Little did I know that in just four years I would help hundreds of families and save countless lives.”