Recognizing the important role of transplant nurses, by Dr. Dana Mitchell

Dana Mitchell, DNP, CRNP, ACNP-BC

Each year in April we celebrate Donate Life Month. This is a time to celebrate organ donors and donor families for the most selfless gift anyone can give. This is also a time to celebrate the life of the transplant recipients who are living with a renewed hope, thanks to donated organs. The month of April can bring about a difficult mixture of unbridled hope and absolute devastation, all at the same time.

Transplant nurses know this dichotomy all too well.

After finishing graduate school at UAB School of Nursing in 2005, I accepted my first job as an acute care nurse practitioner at UAB Hospital in the Heart Transplant Intensive Care Unit. With scarce cardiology experience and no transplant concept, I’m not sure what about me stood out to the transplant team members who interviewed me – but I am forever grateful that it did. I didn’t know it at the time, but taking that position would impact my life forever.

Working in the Heart Transplant Intensive Care Unit was certainly challenging. I probably cried all the way home every day for the first year, but I also grew clinically and personally in ways I never imagined. I had the absolute privilege of caring for critically ill patients who would undergo lifesaving procedures, including transplant, and then go on to reclaim the once vigorous lives heart failure had nearly destroyed. Over the next 10 years, I would develop a profound respect for the field of transplantation, especially the role of the transplant nurse.

In nursing school, we learn the value of professional boundaries while caring for our patients, but in transplant, those lines can easily get blurred.

Transplant nurses become like family members for their patients. In a transplant specialty unit, you often see the same patients admitted over and over, and you watch as they fight through a myriad of health complications. And honestly, nurses don’t watch anything. We fight right along with the patient. You see people at their best and at their absolute worst. You feel the sorrow that comes with lives lost — both from the perspective of the patient’s family, as well as the donor and their family for whom part of them just died all over again. The transplant nursing roller coaster is not for the faint of heart.

Transplant nurses also become technically savvy. As organ shortages persist, they witness the scientific developments and biotechnological masterpieces that can prolong life until organs are available. In the realm of organ procurement, they see constantly evolving methods of donor management and organ preservation. Guess who is continually at the bedside, supporting the patient, managing complex devices and continuously measuring and adjusting high-risk medications? That would be your transplant nurse.

As a colleague and health care provider, I have experienced, watched and been awed by the grace and expertise of so many transplant nurses. My words cannot do justice to roles they play. During this April Donate Life Month, as we spread awareness of the selfless miracle of organ transplantation, April 17th is set aside as Transplant Nurses Day. This day is to honor the support and contributions of the professionals without whom the successes of transplant would not be possible, and the failures would be less bearable. Happy Transplant Nurses’ Day to my colleagues! Thank you for all that you do!

Dana Mitchell, DNP, CRNP, ACNP-BC, joined the UAB School of Nursing as faculty in 2015. She teaches in the School’s graduate and prelicensure programs. Her clinical expertise includes critical care nursing and cardiology, with subspecialty experience in heart failure and heart and lung transplantation. She worked in Advanced Heart Failure Transplant service for 11 years before becoming a faculty member, and she holds a specialty certification in heart failure nursing. Mitchell is active in the American Association of Heart Failure Nurses.


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