Maureen Meade, CNTRP P7 Co-Lead, on the impact and benefits of organ donation
Honouring a patient’s end-of-life wishes is a privilege.
That’s the core belief that drives the culture of organ and tissue donation at Hamilton Health Sciences. For me, and the many passionate staff and physicians who work across this life-giving program, it’s what keeps us inspired and engaged.
As critical care physicians and clinicians, we pride ourselves on providing excellent end-of-life care. Organ donation is an important part of that process.
All areas of clinical practice across a hospital require compassionate professionalism, but organ and tissue donation begs a particularly sensitive approach. It involves dealing with families at some of their darkest moments. It’s at that delicate point in time, often following a tragic event, when the possibility of saying goodbye to a loved one is quickly becoming a reality. That’s when we begin the discussion about donation. This is a critical moment for any family, and it’s not one that is approached lightly.
When it’s done well, having the donation conversation with families can help them through a difficult time. It can have a positive impact on their experience.
These conversations will generally address two different, but equally important elements. First, we have a discussion about the person’s prognosis, chance of survival, and quality of life. When a family understands that brain death has occurred, or decides to focus on comfort and the withdrawal of life support therapies, the second discussion occurs. Only then do we talk about the opportunity to save lives through organ donation.
While difficult, this is when raw humanity shines through. All patients, families and circumstances are memorable, but a few stand out. The boy whose father died as a result of driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol was able to see and remember his dad as a hero. A man who grappled with severe social phobias saved four lives through his donation, to the delight of his siblings. Another family, torn apart by blame and anger, was able to unite over the discussion of donation, and to start listening to one another again — hopefully, a first step toward reconciliation.
I am constantly looking to advance my knowledge, to build a repertoire of different techniques, and to refine my approach to these conversations. Our team is lucky to have a close, collaborative relationship with Trillium Gift of Life Network, Ontario’s donation and transplant partner agency. They provide us incredible training and support to have these difficult discussions with families. They also work tirelessly alongside nurses and physicians on the frontlines.
A STRONG CULTURE
Despite the challenging nature of this work, it’s clear that the donation culture is strong across our hospitals. HHS is consistently a national leader at facilitating donations and has been recognized with six provincial achievement awards since 2011. With the support of generous donor families, our team at HHS has facilitated more organ donations than any other hospital in Ontario since 2012.
This has saved hundreds of lives.
It wouldn’t be possible without the team involved in this program.
When I first started in this field, I learned from Intensive Care Unit (ICU) nurses here at HHS about the powerful effect of organ donation on grieving families. These days, I continue to learn from Trillium coordinators, many of whom are prior ICU nurses as well. Everyone involved is committed to raising awareness about donation and normalizing the process.
When local obstacles arise, HHS staff and physicians and Trillium personnel develop processes to resolve these challenges. When executive support is needed, lines of communication are always open. Everyone works toward the same goal. In my role as a physician advocate for organ donation, I’ve always felt valued and supported by the hospital and leadership. Whether it’s in dealing with the concerns or suggestions of families or hospital staff, I have access to hospital leaders and can contribute toward decision making. Everyone understands the importance of donation.
LEADING RESEARCH INITIATIVES
Having conversations with families about organ and tissue donation is vital to saving the lives of recipients, but we are also focusing attention on how to optimize the effectiveness of these donations. When someone gives this incredible gift, it’s our job to maximize the benefit it provides to a recipient’s quality of life and survival.
Working with physicians, researchers and donation groups across Canada, I am directing a national research program that aims to enhance the medical management of organ donors. We’re creating a strong foundation for clinical trials to better support the practice of organ donation, with an end goal of enhancing transplant recipients’ quality of life and survival.
This research integrates with the work we’re doing every day at the hospital. Not surprisingly, the collaborative nature surrounding organ donation extends into the academic field as well.
Organ donation creates a community. It’s a very special community.
Find more information about organ donation and register to be an organ donor