By Marla Carter Selph
Each April, healthcare organizations across the U.S. recognize National Donate Life Month in an effort to spread awareness and information about the lifesaving impact of organ donation, including the incredible fact that just one organ donor can save up to 8 different lives.
Dr. George Williams, vice chair for critical care medicine in the Department of Anesthesiology at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston and medical director of the Donor Specialty Care Unit at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, and Stacey Dotter, RN, at Memorial Hermann-TMC, call each of these donors a hero.
“They are heroes,” Dotter said. “They are giving life to someone else. It’s a huge gift.”
Williams and Dotter have worked with many donors during their careers. They explained that the donation process involves a number of steps, including procedures to determine the viability of an organ for donation. The various processes take time and require staff who are familiar with the requirements and specific protocols.
Typically, these processes take place in a hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU), where clinical care unrelated to organ donation is occurring simultaneously. Given the specialization and unique requirements associated with the organ donation process, Williams and Dotter saw an opportunity for improving the method. Specifically, they believed that gathering donor specialists together in one specific location to focus on the needs of the donor and the donor’s family would be beneficial.
LifeGift is an organ procurement organization that assists hospitals with their organ donor program. In 2018, Williams started discussions with the transplant team at LifeGift about finding a dedicated space for donors and their families in the hospital. Soon after, Williams found a location. The next step was to get the specialized equipment and staff for organ donation. By December 2020, they had everything in place, and Williams and his team opened the Donor Specialty Care Unit (DSCU) at Memorial Hermann-TMC. Williams serves as the medical director and Dotter is the clinical manager.
What sets this unit apart from a typical ICU setting is that it has a special space for each donor. In addition, it contains the necessary equipment and staff who are skilled with performing the specialty procedures prior to donation. It also has a special room that Williams, Dotter and LifeGift have dedicated just to the heroes’ families.
“It’s a private, calm atmosphere for the donor’s family,” Dotter said. “It puts more of an emphasis on the donor and the gift they are giving. We are recognizing what they’re doing and honoring that.”
The family room has seating and refreshments, and was designed to feel serene for families who are grieving loss.
“We provide families the opportunities to come to the bedside of the donors so they can spend the remaining time with their loved ones,” said Williams.
Williams, Dotter and Tim Dean, Supervisor of Donation Systems at LifeGift, said the concept of having a specific unit dedicated to organ donation is unique. In fact, Williams said Memorial Hermann is one of the first hospitals in the country to have a Donor Specialty Care Unit, and the first in the Houston area.
Since opening in late 2020, the team has noticed an improvement in efficiency, which was one of their primary goals. But something else happened that no one anticipated: the benefits of having a dedicated donor unit has allowed them to donate more organs per donor. The national average is 2.8 organs donated per donor. Since the DSCU’s opening, the average at Memorial Hermann-TMC is 4 organs donated per donor.
“We’ve been able to get more organs transplanted per donor and this helps save more lives,” said Dean. “It’s been one of the many great things to come out of this unit.”
In the 15 months since it opened, the Donor Specialty Care Unit has transformed the donation process for the unit’s staff, the donors and their families. For Williams, Dotter and Dean, it has been incredible to see their vision come to life.
“Knowing we’re making a difference, knowing we’re changing people’s lives, we’re saving people, I feel like this is my life’s work,” said Dean.
The unit has already become so much more than a space for the organ donation process. It is about the donor, the hero, their journey saving other people’s lives, and honoring the true gift of donation.