By Kelly Edwards
Gift of Life Donor Program
What is the ideal relationship between chaplains and organ procurement organizations like ours?
“We need to trust each other,” said Carolanne Hauck, director of chaplaincy care and education at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health. “That trust is built over time.”
There is a special kinship between chaplains and the people who work for OPOs. We are all on the front lines, working with families during their most difficult and heartbreaking time.
Carolanne once met a family whose teen son was in a terrible car accident. After prayer and deliberation, they chose donation. “It was such a privilege to walk alongside that family and be there for that decision process. I heard what their son meant to them. They saw donation was a way that would honor their son and their son’s life by giving someone else an opportunity to live,” she said. “They had a son who was dying, and in the midst of their pain and grief, they were thinking about others.”
Chaplains and OPOs share a responsibility to console families who grieve for lost loved ones, and to honor the life-saving gift of donation. OPOs have the added responsibility of representing the men, women and children on the organ transplant waiting list. It is our duty not to be neutral, but to actively advocate for people to choose donation whenever possible.
In an ideal world, these goals would always be in perfect harmony. But in reality, sometimes they are not. The suddenness of loss impacts every individual and every family differently.
Our Gift of Life donor program works with hospitals in the eastern half of Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and Delaware. Carolanne and her team of dedicated chaplains are some of our most valued partners. Over the past few years, the model we built together at her hospital has become our gold standard of collaboration.
In my role as Gift of Life’s representative to LG Health, I see their great system for chaplain cooperation firsthand. The hospital prioritizes regular education and training with us to ensure the chaplain team knows the communication process with donor families. They keep us apprised of family communication, including where the family is emotionally and how they are understanding the situation.
A chaplain’s work with organ donation isn’t limited to families. It’s important to incorporate hospital staff who may need support into their work as well. By knowing about family communication and the donation process, chaplains at LG Health serve as resources to their fellow teammates on the critical care units.
“Nurses are very protective of their patients and their family members. When they see Gift of Life is involved, they know their families are in for a very difficult conversation,” said Dave Brubaker, a staff chaplain at LG Health. “I work hard to try to be a liaison between the Gift of Life staff and our staff. I try to listen to concerns from both sides and figure out how we can improve this relationship.”
LG Health chaplains created an entire program to unite staff and families in a celebration of organ donation. One touching example is the flag raising at the very front of the hospital during the time that someone is donating. After 24 hours, chaplains take that flag to every staff member who cared for the patient, giving them the chance to sign it and write a message to the family.
“We can help each other get through the process of this person dying,” said Carolanne.
Chaplains also offer to print a donor’s heartbeat rhythm strip on a small length of paper and put it in a little vial, so people can keep the heartbeat of their loved one. Sometimes the hospital dedicates a memorial quilt to honor donors. Other times, like Blue and Green Day, the hospital welcomes transplant recipients and donor families to join in tributes to lost loved ones. So far, 29 lives have been saved thanks to selfless organ donors at LG Health, and countless lives have been improved through tissue donation.
However, one important part of the donation process always falls to Gift of Life Donor Program: being the first to approach the family about the possibility of donation. The most important request we have for our chaplain partners is to ensure that the Gift of Life transplant coordinator is the first to raise the topic.
This process relies on trust. For trust to be possible, it is so important that families hear information about donation that is compassionate and absolutely accurate. The academic research is clear: families who are given more information about the donation process are more likely to donate.
If you don’t know the best point of contact at your local OPO, I encourage you to find out. “It’s got to be a two-way street. Both parties have to really want to make this work and be willing to give and take,” Dave said. “We both ask every day: how can we improve this relationship? Because that’s a win-win for our families and everyone involved.”
Kelly Edwards is hospital services coordinator at Gift of Life Donor Program in Philadelphia.