From tragedy, new life

How Enloe’s award-winning organ-donation program works

GIFT OF LIFE<br>Social worker Stephanie Sicke and neurotrauma charge nurse Chris Hayes both work intimately with Enloe’s organ-donor program.

Social worker Stephanie Sicke and neurotrauma charge nurse Chris Hayes both work intimately with Enloe’s organ-donor program.

Photo By matt siracusa

In the United States, someone dies every 90 minutes because of a shortage of organ donors. The more donations, the more lives saved. It’s as simple as that.

Then again, it’s not at all simple. Because people have to die before organs can be donated, and every death is traumatic.

The fact that Enloe Medical Center was honored recently with not one, but two Organ Donation Medals of Honor from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is significant news. It means the hospital is doing an exceptional job in this hugely important and deeply emotional life-saving arena.

Specifically, the awards were for, first, averaging 3.75 organs per donor over 12 consecutive months and, second, for securing organ donations from 75 percent or more of eligible donors.

Enloe actually had a “100 percent conversion rate” of potential donors becoming actual donors, reported Jennifer McGehee, public affairs coordinator for Oakland-based California Transplant Donor Network (CTDN), the group that matches donated organs with their recipients.

At a Dec. 15 award ceremony in the Enloe Conference Center, Connie Rowe, Enloe’s vice president of nursing, accepted the medals from retired Redding optometrist Jerry Nystrom, a diabetic whose life was saved after receiving a simultaneous kidney/pancreas transplant in 2005, and from Jess Chairez, of Sacramento, who lost his 24-year-old son Joe to a brain aneurysm. Joe’s donated organs helped save four lives. Chairez spoke emotionally of the bittersweet joy of hearing his son’s heart beating in the chest of its grateful recipient.

For people like Nystrom, whose life was saved by the gift of organs from the family of a deceased Bakersfield teen, and Chairez, organ donation is a very emotional experience.

Families coping with the death of a loved one—usually due to an accident or an unexpected traumatic health emergency such as a brain aneurysm—are still somehow able to give “the incredible gift” of life to others in the midst of their grief, as Enloe social worker Stephanie Sicke pointed out recently.

Sicke is part of a network of Enloe employees responsible for helping the hospital figure so prominently on the national organ-donation map (Enloe Medical Center was one of 412 U.S. hospitals that received the 2008 Medal of Honor, the second year in a row it has received the award).

A warm, confidence-inspiring 53-year-old who has worked for the past 10 years at Enloe, Sicke provides “psychosocial support” for critically injured patients and their family and friends.

“My job encompasses crisis intervention and grief support,” she explained recently, as she sat in Enloe’s softly lit chapel. Sicke is instrumental in “get[ting] the individual’s natural support system in place"—identifying and contacting family, friends and spiritual allies (rabbi, pastor, etc.) who are part of a patient’s support network. Finding places to stay for a patient’s out-of-town family members or working to secure emergency visas for family coming from another country are familiar parts of Sicke’s job.

When it is evident that a patient is not going to survive—if he or she is declared brain-dead—it is up to Sicke to work as a liaison between the patient’s family and CTDN to facilitate organ donation if the family decides on that course of action. Sicke stressed that until a patient goes to brain death, there is never any discussion of organ donation. Also, if a patient’s family says no, then “No is no. There’s no talking to them 13 times to try to talk them into it.”

Sicke emphasized the importance of establishing trust and communication early in a patient’s hospitalization. Thus, “when the really difficult decisions need to be made, the families feel more supported and safe.” She makes sure families of potential donors have good communication with medical staff so that they are more prepared and aware when they are told “that their loved one can’t possibly survive.

“There’s never an easy way to understand [that a loved one is brain dead],” said Sicke. “It’s a gift that we [as humans] are given that our brains can’t absorb all that information at once—we have to take baby steps in absorbing a crisis.”

Sicke has high praise for all of Enloe’s staff—including the unit secretaries, respiratory therapists and housekeepers who are essential to the success of Enloe’s donor program. She especially praised the nurses, who are “juggling the emotional and the clinical all the time"—nurses such as Chris Hayes, charge nurse in Enloe’s Neurotrauma Intensive Care Unit.

Hayes has been in his current position for three years, and has worked with trauma patients since he was 23. He has seen patients and their families through the process of organ donation “more than I can count, or want to count. It’s a pretty amazing process. I get the chills just talking about it.”

The composed 31-year-old referred to the “huge tragedy” that brings a patient to him, and the large amount of “managing your own feelings to support what’s going on in someone else’s life” that comes with his job.

“I would be OK if [traumatic injury] never occurred, but it does,” said Hayes. “The reality is people get hurt enough to where they die. Although it’s not what we want to see, it happens. We help them die with dignity, love and respect.”

“Everything we do is a support of the incredible gift that families give—the gift of what their loved one would want them to do in these horrible, horrible situations,” said Sicke, wiping tears from her eyes. “If it weren’t for these families, we wouldn’t have the success we’ve had. We’re an extension of the incredible families we work with. They have such graciousness and such depth.”

Go online to to sign up to be an organ and tissue donor in California.