The next time there is rain, sleet, snow or hail, know that Transplant teams are still working to save lives.
A hurricane was expected to roar into Pennsylvania. As a Transplant Coordinator I was called out first thing in the morning. We travel to hospitals many miles away when there is someone who might be able to be an organ donor, no matter what the weather. People always bond during storms and hospital staff everywhere were on alert, mandated to work through the storm in case new staff were unable to get in. Extra people were ready to carry the workload for whatever might come. I got permission to get boxes of coffee and donuts to take with me, in a spirit of camaraderie. Wind was picking up and rain was spitting as I drove in.
The morning passed quickly and by mid afternoon a family I was working with completed paperwork for organ donation to take place. They left the hospital and we started our testing process, so that we could report to the surgeons the data about all the potential gifts. In the evening we printed lists of possible recipients. Always the storm was in the background. Cots were placed in certain areas so nurses could sleep overnight and resume work in the morning, relieving the night shift. But a transplant coordinator works for 24 hours before they call someone to relieve them. We are considered stewards of these precious and rare gifts and there are many threads of information we weave together so we work as long as possible on behalf of the family we spoke with.
We tried to work quickly as the storm raged outside. It was soundless through the thick hospital walls unless you stood right next to the windows. Below on the streets when I got a chance to look I could see metal street signs vibrating dangerously in the wind and driving rain. No people, no cars.
We sent the donor information out electronically and talked directly to multiple surgeons. Some surgeons declined due to the distance and the storm. Some would have had to fly in and this was impossible, so there were electronically logged in refusals. Others would call their patients and see if they could come in for an estimated OR (operating room) time.
Surgeons whose patients are receiving a gift generally come to the hospital where the donor is, all at the same time, to do the organ recovery. The organ recovery can not take place until we know where each gift is going, whose life it will save. Then the organs are packaged on ice and travel back to be transplanted at each recipients transplant center. We would get timing set up and then a recipient patient would try to get to his own transplant hospital and find the roads un-passable. The surgeon would call us back and decline the organ because the patient was unable to get in. And so we would try to stick to the same OR time and move down the list. But the clock is ticking. It would be impossible to make the time work, so we would set a new time. And to be fair, we would have to re-approach the surgeons at the top of the list again, who had declined because their patient could not get in for the prior OR time… because maybe the patient would be able to get in with the new OR time…. We were doing this a 3rd time, it was so frustrating. Re-do it. Re-do it. Re-do it. Have to be fair. Have to document. Cannot make an error and have to call for each person, in order, for each organ. One patient tried 4 or 5 different routes to get in from home, finding downed trees and wires blocking their ability to pass. They had only one more route to try, and that one the roads did not have downed tree’s… so that organ became his gift. He made it in.
We also got pushback from the surgeons… I was yelled at by one who accused me of trying to kill him… he felt he was taking his life in his hands to drive in. Believe me, I wished I were home with my family, too. I was just doing my job. But what if someone got hurt? I felt such a responsibility. I did not think it made sense to risk a life to save a life. And yet people die on the waiting list for an organ transplant every day. The donor will only stay stable for so long… we always try to make the best decisions and sometimes they are not easy. Imagine the pressure a family feels to hear that in the middle of a hurricane a life saving gift is available if they can drive through wild winds and rain to get the transplant.
It was almost a relief to hear the state suddenly closed some major highways. A medical team that was coming out to recover some of the gifts for us was told they could not move by their hospital administration team. They had to wait for the highways to open again, so we all had to wait.
We were hours into the storm. About 3 AM I went out to my car to get some more supplies. This hospital had a parking garage. My car was next to a closed wall, not near a more open area. I stood in the garage hearing the wind whipping around, seeing and feeling the mist from the rain that was being blown violently. Seeing not a soul, surrounded by sound. A hum, a roar, a hiss.
A few hours later the highways re-opened and the teams began to move into position even though the storm was still wild and present. They arrived safely. We were the only active case that night in our area, but I am sure there were other cases in other states affected by the hurricane. The process exhausted my partner and me. Finally our 28 hours of work came to an end. Surgeon’s left with carefully packed gifts on ice to be transplanted, while we went home to sleep. By the time 4 people were transplanted, the sun was out.
It was days before I realized that the shingles scattered around the neighborhood were from my roof.