ST. PETERSBURG — The nurse kept coming into the hospital room at Bayfront Medical Center to tell Marcia Nelson about the people.
So many people.
They had come because of the love they shared for her 17-year-old son Jacquez Welch. They had come because he blessed them with some random act of kindness, because his smile made their day, because his presence warmed them, because his attitude inspired them.
Some came because they knew him as a Northeast High teammate or student. Some came because they knew him from youth football. Some came even though they had never met him.
But they all came to the hospital last Monday to honor him. One last time.
As Jacquez lay motionless, his eyes closed, his dreadlocks gently resting on a pillow, a Tampa Bay Buccaneers blanket covering his legs, the Bayfront doctors and nurses started carefully removing and connecting various tubes and wires.
And then, they guided him towards the operating room so they could recover his organs and tissue and donate them to people in need. His siblings and family members trailed, and the people, so many people, lined one side of the hallway.
An estimated 500 on two floors. Only sobs and wails – and the beeping of a machine – broke the silence. When they closed the door to the operating room, Nelson said she broke down.
It’s called an “honor walk,” and the moment overwhelmed Nelson, as it would any mom. She knew it would be the last time she would see Jacquez before the funeral. A senior linebacker and running back, he collapsed on the Northeast High field after a group tackle in a game against Osceola.
Doctors diagnosed him with arteriovenous malformation, also known as AVM. It’s a rare condition that causes a snarl of blood vessels and arteries, usually in the brain. When ruptured, the tangled vessels can cause bleeding on the brain.
After spending three days and three nights in the hospital, the time had come for Nelson to say goodbye, but to see so many supporters strengthened the farewell moment.
“It was so respectful,” Nelson said. “Everybody was quiet because it’s a moment of silence. It just brought me to tears — how much support and how many people came out for my son. He might not seem so big, but he made a big difference.”
Officials at LifeLink Foundation, the nonprofit organization that handles the recovery of life-saving organs in West Florida, said Jacquez’s Honor Walk represented the largest ever in Tampa Bay. Officials describe it as a breathtaking moment where family, friends and hospital staff pay respects and recognize the generosity of the organ donor.
Not all hospitals do Honor Walks at this time, but many do or are in the process of planning for them in the future. Honor Walks are hospital driven, and they take great care to ensure they’re respectful.
Jacquez could never have envisioned such an outpouring. Nor could he have ever realized how his decision to become an organ donor has inspired so many. LifeLink officials say online registrations at DonateLifeFlorida.org average between 180-200 people daily. This week, it’s climbed as high as 660 daily from all over the state.
They attribute the increase to the media coverage of Jacquez’s death. Nelson said her son, who chose to be an organ donor when he got his driver’s license, would have wanted it this way.
“I had a talk with him before when he got his driver license and he asked me about it,” Nelson said. “I said, ‘Basically when you’re gone, somebody else gets your parts that are still good.’ He was like, ‘Oh yeah, I would like to do that. What am I going to do with them?'
“You know, he's always been a jokester. So, he was open to it.”
The media coverage also has brought Nelson remarkable attention. She has heard from organ donor recipients, people diagnosed with AVM and families impacted by similar tragedies. The calls and emails have come from as far as Africa. People from around the nation have credited her courage.
She says she’s being strong for her other four kids: Ashanti Welch, 16; Demarion Boyd, 14, Malayia Boyd, 13; and Malik Welch, 11.
“I think we’re all just being strong for each other. They’ve been going to school and they have a lot of support for them at their schools," she said.
“I don’t want to say, ‘Why him?’ because everything happens for a purpose. And that's how I'm looking at it. It's a purpose behind why God took my son. I just don't know what that purpose is and I'm still trying to figure it out. Maybe it's for me to be a resource about AVM, because I had never heard about it.”
Maybe it’s to encourage people to be organ donors. His decision will touch eight lives and impact more than 70 others through tissue donations.
"Physically, he’s gone. But he’s still helping someone else,” Nelson said.
Maybe it’s to show that a life well-lived, albeit one deserving of more than 17 years on this earth, can touch lives. So many ways. So many people.
“It's amazing. Amazing,” Nelson said. “I've never seen anything like this before and I have seen kids that passed away who had achieved a lot of things and had things done for them, but nothing like this. And I just appreciate every bit of it.
“Maybe it happened because it’s to open another child’s eyes to not just what Jacquez had, but what he did to get where he was. Maybe it’s to get them to push themselves, maybe a little harder, to achieve their goals like my son did.”
How to help the family
Northeast coach Jeremy Frioud has set up a Go Fund Me page to help Jacquez Welch’s family with medical expenses. To donate, click here.
Contact Ernest Hooper at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @hoop4you.