Saturday, April 11, 2009

A second chance

In my job, I don't usually have the opportunity to interact with patients and families with the same degree of intimacy and privilege as caregivers. But some time ago my life was touched by the death of a young woman, by the questions of her grieving husband, and by the response of an OR nurse.

I remembered that young woman this week when I looked out my window to see the "Donate Life" flag in front of the hospital. We are flying the flag during April in honor of organ recipients, who have a second chance at life, and in honor of the donors, whose organs, eyes and tissues give them that chance.
A young woman was pronounced dead in Community General's emergency department, and her husband immediately agreed to organ harvesting. Married just a few years, the young couple had talked about donating their bodies to help others "if something should ever happen.”

After the woman's body was prepared for the operating room, hospital staff worked throughout the night. Surgical teams from other medical centers came and went as various organs and bones were harvested, then carried to other parts of the country.

On a Monday six months later, the widower called and asked to meet with members of the hospital staff who had cared for his wife the day she died. “I want to thank them,” he said, “and I have some unanswered questions, some things I am wondering about.”

I did not know what to make of this request. The man was heartfelt. What did he mean “unanswered questions?”

I arranged for him to attend a small reception at the hospital several weeks later. I invited to the reception those clinical staff who had been involved in the care of his wife and in harvesting the organs.

The reception was scheduled for mid-morning when staff would be taking coffee breaks. I wasn't sure how many caregivers would actually be able to attend -- or how many would have an interest in doing so.

"Hospital people are very busy," I said, beginning an explanation in case only a handful showed up.

Many caregivers came. They greeted the widower, introducing themselves and shaking his hand. “I cared for your wife in the ED,” one said. “I was with your wife in the OR,” said another. They all said, “We're sorry for your loss.”

The man said, “I remember you," and "Thank you so much for all you did.” He thanked everyone for stopping to see him that morning.

One OR nurse was especially prepared. She had done some homework, and she held a small paper with numbers on it. “Let me tell you about some of the people who benefited from your wife's gifts,” she began.

“There was a 15 year-old girl in Virginia with bone cancer. She received your wife's long bones.

"There was a middle-aged man in St. Louis who received her heart. I was in the OR when the harvest team arrived from St. Louis. The team left, and we continued to work on your wife. Hours later there was a phone call to the OR, and it was put on the speaker in the room where we were working. The caller said, ‘The heart is in the patient, and it is beating.’ We all cheered.”

The nurse continued, “I tried to count the number of patients who were helped by your wife's gifts - they received the eyes, the kidneys, the skin, the bones, the heart." She glanced at the paper with numbers. "I counted more than 150 individuals who were helped.

"The harvesting took many hours," she continued. "When it was over, we were all exhausted. We all said a prayer for your wife, right there in the OR.”

"I had no idea,” the widower said. “I had no idea that so many people were helped. Thank you for telling me this. You have no idea how much this means to me.”

* * *
Each us us can prepare for organ donation now "if something should ever happen." For more information, visit Donate Life, a not-for-profit alliance of national organizations and state teams that encourages organ, eye and tissue donations.

[I wrote about this experience in a somewhat different form in an earlier posting.]

1 comment:

joe said...

Thanks Tom, for this reminder that not only is it more than medicine, it's more than business and it's more than a job. I'm going to send you a copy of the new book "The Florence Prescription: From Accountability to Ownership." I think you will enjoy it (also, dial in to the Health Forum web seminar on Invisible Architecture on May 6). Thanks again.

Joe Tye (a recovering hospital administrator)