NURSES say the introduction of specialist donor and transplant co-ordinators to the NHS has made a profound difference to the way hospitals broach the once taboo subject of organ donation.
The co-ordinator role — created in 2008 following recommendations from the Organ Donation Task Force Report — aims to provide continuous care for the person who has died and their family.
Sarah Ralley, donor and transplant co-ordinator based at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary (RLI) and Barrow’s Furness General, was appointed in February 2010 and says her role makes organ donation a more coherent process.
“Organ donation isn’t new, but the NHS have realised that there’s a real dilemma in this country and that donor rates are low. The consensus is that people generally do think donation is a good thing but it’s just about making people aware and educating them more about the process,” she said.
Not all Primary Care Trusts have specialist nurses yet, but the NHS’s plan is to make sure there are 250 in place by 2011.
“I really have the most wonderful job, I feel so priveleged to do it.
"You are very humbled because you meet families in the most tragic times of their lives who want to help someone else by allowing their relative to be an organ donor. It blows me away sometimes, the generosity of others.”
Nurse Ralley’s day typically starts at 8am where she will go on a ward round and catch up with the nurses on the Intensive Care Unit.
After emails and administration work she is then ready to meet with anyone who needs her assistance.
Doctors or nurses may ask her to meet families who want to discuss organ donation, and sometimes she will ask families if they would like to consider donation if she thinks it is appropriate.
If a family decides to donate their loved one’s organs, she will be in theatre during the organ retrieval process and maintains contact with the donor family, letting them know a little about the recipient if they desire.
Most importantly she performs the ‘last offices’, which is where the body is washed and prepared to be laid out in the hospital’s chapel.
“I make sure that the family get all their last wishes, so that if they want their relative dressed in their favourite T-shirt or with a special piece of jewellery, I will make sure that happens.
"Or, if it’s a child, I can make sure they have their special teddy or doll with them.
"It’s a great, great honour to be able to do that for a family.”
If she is ‘on call’ then she may have to travel to any hospital in the North West to assist families as they go through the process of donating their relative’s organs.
“I go wherever I am needed to help donor families, explain to them the process and look after them really.
"Sometimes they might decide that they don’t want their relative to be a donor, but I have to give them that choice, and often it gives them great comfort to know they’ve saved a life.”
Heather Bendall, senior sister of the eight-bed Intensive Care Unit at the RLI, said: “I think Sarah’s role is working really well.
"Families do come to ask us about organ donation and to have someone on site who can answer all the questions is brilliant.
"We can’t spend as much time as we would like with families because we’re a busy unit so it’s great to have Sarah to help families at such a difficult time.”
Nurse Ralley says her job can be very sad at times but the new life it brings people needing transplants keeps everything in perspective.
“Knowing that transplants can help save people’s lives is an amazing thing.
"I’ve seen sad situations when someone has died, but knowing where their organ goes and who it helps, makes the whole process remarkable and deeply fulfilling.
"It’s a difficult and sensitive job, but it is also about new life and I am honoured to do it.”
If you want to sign up to donate your organs, go to www.organdonation.nhs.uk or telephone 0300 1232323.