When I tell people I work in organ transplant, I can tell that their mind is often racing with many different images and ideas. From Meredith Grey dropping a kidney on Grey’s Anatomy (and then proceeding to transplant it into someone…) to myths about celebrities paying to move to the top of the list, the misconceptions about the organ donation world live on. For me, though, organ transplantation brings up many other images and ideas. It’s the look of grief mixed with hope on a young mom’s face as she signs yes on the dotted line, agreeing to donate her child’s organs. It’s the ringing of the phone in the middle of the night (sometimes all night…), signaling an organ offer for someone on the waitlist. It’s the sound of the helicopter taking off with my transplant team in it, on their way to bring back someone precious second chance. It’s the scream of joy from a patient when my team calls to tell them we FINALLY have an organ for them. Through it all, through the joy and heartbreak that intermingle in this job, I have seen Gods plan at work and been able to witness firsthand how while every prayer is not always answered, He never stops working.
I started working as an organ transplant coordinator in 2005 after working as a critical care nurse prior to that. I can still remember my first day of training as a transplant coordinator. I was absolutely terrified. I didn’t know a ton about organ transplant. I knew that patients had to be declared brain dead first and then families had to consent for organ donation. Beyond that, I was utterly clueless. I quickly learned on the job and became immersed in the world of donation and transplant. I learned how to approach families and ask for consent for organ donation which is, perhaps, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I learned how to maintain an organ donor’s heartbeat and keep their organs oxygenated and how to place organs with potential recipients. And perhaps the most important thing I learned was how to pray and let God use me to do His will.
I grew up attending church and prayer was a part of my daily life. I prayed, read my Bible, attended church and church camps. Yet, I had never actually heard God speak to me. I felt that a lot of the choice I made were the result of events I had experienced and didn’t necessarily see God as the one orchestrating those choices. As a nurse and transplant coordinator, I continued to pray but most of my prayers were me asking God for what I wanted. I would pray that I would be given the right words to say to a grieving family and that I wouldn’t make a mistake when caring for a patient. And even though I was able to work with countless organ donors and their families and place many organs for transplant, I hadn’t really felt God’s hand directly in my career and my life until He one day showed up in such a clear way.
The phone rang late one night and when I answered, it was the administrator on call at the organ procurement organization I worked for. I was on call the next day and a family had just signed consent for organ donation at a hospital in Southern California. I was told the donor was a young teenager that had suffered severe head trauma after a car accident. I went to sleep knowing the next 24 hours would be busy and stressful. I drove close to two hours the next morning to the hospital the organ donor was at. The donor’s family was at the bedside and I was immediately struck by how calm and peaceful his mother was. She was very honest with me and told me that while she knew God hadn’t answered her prayers of saving her son, his death was going to be the answer to so many other prayers out there. She went on to say that she didn’t want his death to be in vain and she wanted his life to have meaning and she felt that organ donation was giving them this chance to make his memory live on in a tangible way. She smiled and said she knew that I was sent to help this happen, hugged me and continued her vigil by her son’s bedside.
I spent the next few hours coordinating the care of my patient. I adjusted his medications, analyzed lab results and attempted to keep his organs functioning and perfusing so they could be transplanted into someone else. By mid-afternoon, I was ready to begin placing his organs. As I printed out the list of potential recipients for each organ, I knew how many lives were about to be changed by the calls I would make. Within a few hours I had transplant centers interested in every organ available for transplant, except his heart. Due to my patient’s rare blood type and large body build, the list was short, and I had exhausted it. I spoke with my supervisor who recommended we move forward with setting an OR time for recovery of the organs we had placed as it was often difficult to get into this OR. I went into the room to update the family. I let them know that we would most likely be going to the operating room before the morning and that his lungs, liver, kidneys and pancreas had been placed for transplant. His mom asked about his heart and I repeated what I had told my supervisor and said that I was unable to place it. His mom looked right at me and said, “That’s not actually right. I’ve been praying without ceasing since the first phone call about his car accident. I first prayed for him to be spared and for God to save him. Then I prayed for me to be able to get through this. And now, I’m praying for those out there that his organs are going to save. And I know without a doubt that someone out there needs his heart. I know it. And I know I’m going to hear his heart beating again, in someone else’s chest. I’m sorry but your work here isn’t done. You need to go find that person because there is someone out there waiting for his heart.” She then turned away and began praying.
I walked out of the room stunned and frustrated. I had spent all day making phone calls. I had exhausted the list and I now had other transplant teams waiting to go to the operating room. I had already spoke with the OR at the hospital and had an OR time booked with teams starting to prep. I had literally no idea what to do. I called my supervisor to tell her they might need to send a family coordinator out to the hospital to talk to the mom as she seemed to have some unrealistic expectations. I walked to the cafeteria to get a Diet Coke and as I did, I prayed. I prayed that God would help me reach this mom. I prayed that if there was someone out there waiting for this heart, God would find a way to let me know. I prayed that I would know the right words to say to the mom when I walked back into the room to tell her that I had not placed his heart. Because as much as I was praying, I was praying for what I thought would happen. My prayer wasn’t really a prayer as much as it was a request to God to do what I wanted Him to do. I didn’t believe that God was actually going to change the outcome of the case; after all, I had already done the job I had been sent to do.
I walked back into the unit more relaxed and caffeinated. I sat down to look at the heart list one more time. Right then, the phone rang. It was the coordinator at one of the local transplant centers. She quickly asked me if we had been able to place my donors’ heart. I explained that due to the short heart list and his size, we had not. She said they had a patient that had been referred to them for a potential heart transplant. He was still in the workup phase but had just been brought in by ambulance and was in complete heart failure. His blood type matched my donor and he was a big guy, one that could definitely fit this heart. She asked if they could quickly list their patient as a Status 1, meaning he moved to the top of the list, and if we could re-run the list. I had to work with my supervisor and UNOS (United Network of Organ Sharing) to make sure the proper protocol was followed. Less than 1 hour later, the patient was listed, our list was re-ran and the transplant center had accepted my patient’s heart. I walked back into his room to tell his family. His mom turned, looked at me and before I could say a word said “It’s placed. I know. I know. I knew all along. This is what was meant to happen.” We hugged, both of us in tears at this point. A few short hours later, I wheeled him into the operating room. On the other side of the big metal door were all the transplant teams, anxiously waiting to recover his organs. I waited while his mom and dad said goodbye and walked through those doors.
When I left the hospital after the recovery was complete, I felt completely different. It had been a mere 24 hours since I had entered yet I had witnessed something so amazing. I’ve always known that there were miracles that occur in organ transplant. How else can one person’s death be that which saves someone else? Yet, I had never played such an integral part in it. I saw firsthand how God used me to complete His work. I learned to give my job over to Him, to stop praying for the outcome I wanted to happen and to let my actions be directed by His will.
Less than 1 year after this, I walked into a small room at the office of the organization I worked for. Inside the office was my patient’s mom. We hugged and talked and then a man walked in. I watched while the two of the hugged and cried. I handed over my stethoscope and helped my patient’s mom listen to her son’s heartbeat once more as it beat strongly in this man’s chest. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve witnessed and the culmination of my career in transplant. It was on that day that I dedicated myself to continuing to work in this field and to letting God use me to do His work. I’ve now worked in transplant for over a dozen years. It hasn’t all been roses. There are times where I’m exhausted and frustrated by the work I’m doing and wish that I had a job with more normal hours where my phone didn’t ring 24/7. But then I remember that what I’m doing is so much more than a job. I’m letting God use me to help others. So, I take a deep breath, answer the phone again and remember to pray that God’s will, not mine, is done with each case I work on.
-Megan Bell #RLLA