It was Christmas, my holiday to work. I arrived early to make assignments and to get the feel of how the previous shift was going. When it was time to assign myself a patient, I was drawn to a young woman who ended up with a brain injury causing her to be on life support. Soon after the shift began, all signs were showing that this young, once vibrant woman was brain dead.
As her family, in their overwhelming grief, approached me about donating her organs, the donor network was already en route. I assured the family someone would be in to speak with them soon. In the meantime, I encouraged them to gather around their loved one. I brought chairs, Kleenex, put on soft music and dimmed the lights, encouraged them to hold her hands, sit next to her, tell stories, laugh, cry and say things they needed to say.
The donor team arrived shortly thereafter, spoke with the family, obtained all the consents and informed me that I would be assisting them the rest of the evening, following their orders, protocols and procedures. This was a new experience for me. Even though I knew the end result (or so I thought), I was utterly intrigued by their diligence, kindness and their hard work—nurses working as a team on the other end of the life spectrum.
For many hours we did lab work, ventilator tests and changes, and medication administrations. The drugs I was administrating were not foreign to me, but I was learning the many different types of reasons I was giving them. I watched in awe and sadness as this young woman’s body went through all of the different stages of brain death: SIADH, diabetes insipidus, etc. The donor nurses and I worked even faster and more diligently.
During a lull in the activity, I caught up on my own paperwork. All around me I could hear the donor nurses frantically making phone calls. I listened as they spoke with other patients, physicians and families, telling them that they had located a match for a heart, lungs, liver, kidneys.
I found my own emotions to be overwhelming and somewhat confusing. I felt almost guilty for this poor young woman dying, her family feeling unbearable grief. On the other hand, I felt this absolute joy of playing a part in saving the lives of all these other patients—on Christmas, no less. How can news like that not make you believe in God or a Higher Power?
I did my best to console the family, including calling in their clergyperson. The family, however, needed more answers and understanding than I alone could give them, considering how new I was to this. After taking multiple Donor Network seminars, nothing truly prepared me fully for all that I experienced. I thank God to this day for the donor nurses, who did an amazing job answering questions and explaining the tests and procedures that would happen after the patient was transferred to surgery.
After a long, emotionally draining but educational 12 hours, it was time for this patient and her family to give the ultimate gift of life to many at the expense of their own grief, the loss of their daughter, sister, mother and best friend.
They each took turns saying goodbye. They took turns saying goodbye to me and the donor nurses. They seemed at peace with their decision, even grateful, despite their own loss.
I think back to that Christmas every year. I thank God for that patient and her family as well as all the patients who benefited from her ultimate gifts. It makes me realize why I love being a nurse.
Becky Joslin is a Critical Care Nurse who absolutely loves her job and all the great experiences that come along with it. She received her ADN from Iowa Central Community College in 1993.