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A transplant co-ordinator talks about the challenges behind a life-saving job | Toronto Star

By: Barbara Turnbull Living reporter, Published on Tue Mar 18 2014

Traci Graf lasted just two and a half years as an organ and tissue transplant co-ordinator, but that still tops the average stint in the challenging field.

“Even though I burned out, it didn’t change how passionate I am about the subject,” says the nurse and author of The Gift of Life: Behind the scenes of Donor Organ Retrieval (Firefly Books, 2014). “It’s (something) most people don’t talk about and most people don’t know about.”

In her account of her time putting together organ and tissue procurement from deceased donors in 152 hospitals, Graf, 43, imparts some of the medical finesse required to deal with the complexities of transplant, and heart-wrenching recollections of cases that remain with her.

The mother of three now enjoys community nursing, where the one-on-one relationship with patients is a welcome change.

The Star spoke to Graf from her new home in Florida.

What prompted you to write the book?

I started writing some of my experiences. It snowballed from there. The more I shared what I’d written, the more people wanted to know.

What was it like being referred to by hospital colleagues as “organ vultures?”

Hurtful. It wasn’t all of them, but it was frustrating that some weren’t able to respect the position that we had to be in to make donation happen.

What’s the most difficult part of the job?

The hours. We worked on a 48-hour call rotation system and many times we’re out for 28 hours without breaks. If that could’ve been eight- or 12-hour shifts, I probably wouldn’t have stopped when I did.

What’s the burnout rate for transplant co-ordinators?

Most places, from what I’ve known, they’re in and out in a year and a half.

Can you address the suspicion that a trauma team won’t work as hard for a registered donor?

If you come into a trauma unit and you are critically injured, they don’t care who you are. Trauma teams save people who shoot people, who shoot cops. They deserve credit that they work as hard as they can to save your life.

Your job requires widespread co-operation with many medical professionals. What were some of those challenges?

It’s common for there to be difficulties. As the co-ordinator we need to understand that the health care team has emotions that they’re trying to deal with themselves, many times after days of trying to save a patient and having to finally admit that you are unable to do that. Sometimes those emotions come into play and it could come out as being uncooperative.

You have to be patient and understanding to do the job.

Very patient. And you have to understand how everybody feels. The co-ordinator is dealing with the health care team, families, sometimes medical examiners or police officers. It’s important for us that families have closure and whatever that means to help them get there is very important.

How did you deal with the emotions?

You cry a lot by yourself. You try to think about the recipient and how they might feel. Even though we’re instrumental in having someone transplanted and saving their life, we never meet them. The death part of it is so hard to deal with, especially when you’re talking about a pediatric donor. I tried to find the positive wherever I could, even if they were in small increments.

What were the rewards?

The medical knowledge I gained from doing that job is nothing I could compare it to. Transplant co-ordinators function more like a critical care physician than a nurse. But the rewards, number one, were for the people who were transplanted. When you’re working a donor case and you look at the recipient list, seeing these people at the top of the liver, heart and lung list, you know that they are days from death. And something that you did changed that forever for them.

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