Memorial Hospital honors 12-year-old organ donor with touching tribute

Malachi Southern would’ve thought it was the coolest thing.

He would’ve loved seeing more than 250 doctors, nurses, technicians, therapists, cafeteria workers, custodians and so many others line the hallways for him. Hallways that 10 minutes prior had been empty, but quickly filled after an overhead announcement asking associates who could spare a few minutes to assemble for a special tribute.

He would’ve loved being the center of attention in the first Honor Walk for a pediatric patient, and only the second patient ever honored this way at Memorial Hospital. And to be slowly pushed on a bed with wheels, his mom by his side, past so many people who were there to support him on his way to the operating room.

And the kind-spirited 12-year-old, who loved to tell corny jokes, emulate Fortnite dance moves, and ride his red motorized dirt bike, would’ve loved knowing he saved the lives of three people by donating his kidneys, pancreas and liver after his dirt bike accident in Goshen. His heart valves and corneas will likely help even more people.

If Malachi had known he was going to die, he would’ve wanted to help others.

“If he knew he saved three people, he would be ecstatic. He would want to help people, because that was my son. He cared about people,” said Melissa Southern. “We all hoped he was going to recover. But if that wasn’t going to happen, I knew this would be something he would want to do. I’m positive about it.”

Melissa learned about the touching tribute planned by the hospital only a short time before her son would take his last breath on Monday. She and her husband, Josh, broke down sobbing at Malachi’s bedside as they listened to what they could expect during the Honor Walk. It’s a solemn ritual for hospitals across the country to acknowledge the sacrifice the dying patient is about to make.

They looked over at their son, his face swollen, but peaceful. Malachi never regained consciousness after arriving at the hospital on June 10. His room now was dimly backlit in red, Malachi’s favorite color, as the staff prepared to say their good-byes to the young man, and move him for the last time.

The same nurses and specialists who spent the week caring for Malachi on the pediatrics unit, now gently tucked white sheets and blankets around him. Melissa looked up at the nurses and staff, knowing each and every one had gone above and beyond for their family.

Chaplain Sunday made special arrangements to baptize Malachi. Dr. Thompson the trauma surgeon would come up to check in. Dr. Patankar would explain things over and over again so he was sure Melissa understood completely what was happening. “He hugged me and even cried with me,” she said. Dr. Alswang watched Snapchat videos of Malachi laughing and dancing. Nurse Heather selflessly gave up her day off to come in and see how Malachi was doing, and Jessica, a child life specialist, was patient and kind.

“They were so willing to give up time with their own families to be with my son,” Melissa said. “Even when they knew it was fatal, they would still talk to Malachi as they explained what they were doing. ‘Sorry, buddy, but I’m going to open your eye now.’ They would say his name and act like he was just sleeping.”

It was only natural for Melissa to lie beside her son during the Honor Walk. She had slept in bed next to him every night in the hospital. She held his hand, talked to him, stroked his cheeks, kissed him and told Malachi over and over again how much she loved him. The nurses held him up so she could hug him – really hug him – one last time. She wanted to be with him now, and to hold his hand when he took his last breath.

Malachi’s head tilted toward his mom, and her eyes never leaving him, the doctors and nurses rolled the bed down silent hallways brimming with people. Hallway after hallway, employees stood shoulder-to-shoulder. Phones and beepers silenced, the only sounds were the life-support machines and automatic doors opening and closing.

So many people held tissues and wiped away tears.

The love they could see between mother and son was palpable.

“I couldn’t look up, but out of the corner of my eye I could tell how many people we were passing,” Melissa said. “When we got downstairs I could hear people crying. They were crying, and they didn’t even know my boy. It was overwhelming, how everyone was taking time out of their day to respect him.”

She feels some comfort in the number of ways Malachi told her goodbye during the last week: In a tear that trickled down his face the first night in the hospital. In a nurse’s Pink Panther Theme ringtone on her phone that was the first song he learned to play on his xylophone.

And she is comforted in knowing Malachi’s final act was a gift of hope to others.

“Malachi was very empathetic, always wanting to help people, so I know it’s what he would have wanted,” she said. “A part of him will always be helping someone else.”