Two MUHC nurses help families cope with the sudden loss of a loved one

And delicately broach the issue of organ and tissue donation

Wendy Sherry and Bernard Tremblay are the MUHC nurse clinicians for organ and tissue donation, but they see themselves more as acute grief counsellors. For some who don’t understand their job very well, they call Wendy and Bernard vultures. Although this last “title” is completely inaccurate, it is easy to see why these nurses would get such a nasty label. Wendy and Bernard’s job consists of counseling families when a loved one has been declared legally brain dead. But their main purpose is to provide information on the subject of organ and tissue donation.

“The families we take care of come to the MUHC hospitals because of a family member's sudden traumatic event--some of whom are subsequently declared brain dead,” says Wendy. “Obviously people are in shock so we support, explain and help them cope as well as we can under the given circumstances. We become the family’s advocate, and in turn provide them with an opportunity to help those waiting for an organ or tissue donation.”

Within the MUHC, the rate of patients referred to Wendy and Bernard doubled between 2007 and 2008. This is thanks to the work Wendy and Bernard put into teaching, visibility and promotion on the benefits of organ and tissue donation. In 2008 in Quebec alone, there were 1,159 people on the waiting list for a donated organ. Thirty-six people died waiting, 531 received their transplant. The rest are still waiting. The numbers are just as staggering for tissue donation. For the western portion of Quebec, over 1,000 people are waiting for corneas. Cardiac valves for children are also in high demand, a surgery that would help avoid a heart transplant later in life.

Whether a family says “yes” or “no” to organ and/or tissue donation, Wendy and Bernard stay with the family and support them. Cultural, religious and family traditions or rituals are incorporated into the care plan. Locks of hair can be cut, memory boxes offered, and handprints made. Time is given to say goodbye. Children are also encouraged to visit, and age-appropriate books are available to help explain what has happened. A lot is going on all at once so Wendy and Bernard give the families their number where they can be reached 24/7. And about three weeks after the death they call the family to see how they are doing and if they have any concerns or questions.

Bernard sees their primary goal as supporting the families. ”In the end,” he says, “the family will make the decision that is right for them about organ and tissue donation.”

At the MUHC, end-of-life care for patients and families is gaining importance. Recently, there has been good success with work on standardizing it across adult intensive-care units.

If you are interested in working on-call with Wendy and Bernard, you can reach them at 514-934-1934, x-36590.  They are looking for nurses who have an intensive care background who are working part-time.