INTERVIEW With Kate Mitchell, a Clinical Educator, Who Says: “My Sister’s Transplant Was a Miracle!”
A critical care expert and sister of a liver transplant recipient explains why healthcare professionals should embrace organ donation.
A healthcare professional for almost 20 years, Kate Mitchell is a clinical educator at Upstate University Hospital. She was a registered nurse for 17 of those years. Kate has her Master’s degree and is a licensed nurse practitioner.
With so much experience in critical care, you might think that when Kate’s sister Nonie Bergesen was listed to receive a liver, the health professional would take the situation somewhat in stride. On the contrary, Kate found the two sides of the coin—being a clinical expert and Nonie’s sister—very difficult to reconcile.
Nonie’s liver disease began with hepatitis C and eventually led to a collapsed lung and liver cancer. Unexpectedly, and in the nick of time, Nonie underwent a liver transplant on November 30, 2012. Read Nonie’s Story
We asked Kate to tell us about her dual roles during the time her sister desperately needed a liver transplant, and what she learned from the experience that she would like to share with other healthcare professionals.
Q: Like Nonie and the rest of your family, you originally lived on Long Island. Did you enter the healthcare profession there?
A: Yes, I worked in critical care at SUNY Stony Brook. Faced with the high cost of living on Long Island, I moved to Syracuse in 2001.
Q: Before we go any further, tell us something about your personal life.
A: When I am not at work or out of town, I live with my two dogs who keep me company and who definitely keep me busy! I have many friends and family in CNY. I enjoy kayaking, photography and I am learning to be a runner.
Q: You certainly lead a busy life. Turning back to your profession, what is it about critical care that appeals to you?
A: It’s like being on the front line in health care because you are dealing with life and death situations. I enjoy working with people and I like the challenge. I enjoy trying to find out what’s going on and taking care of the patients. Actually, it’s not just taking care of patients because it’s also about families in crisis, for the most part. I found it to be very rewarding. I became attached to the patients, some of whom I knew for years as they were re-admitted. You do your best for them. It’s hard when they don’t make it.
Q: So as a critical care nurse concentrating on cardiology cases, you were aware of organ donation, correct?
A: Yes, because of the federal law that requires hospitals to call their local organ procurement organization when there is a death or imminent death of a patient. So I made phone calls to FLDRN—the Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network. However, none of my patients were ultimately suitable to be organ donors.
[As a critical care nurse] you are dealing with patients and family during one of the worst times of their lives when they have no control over what’s going on.
Q: Five years ago, you left the front line as it were, and switched your role to clinical educator. In that capacity, what’s your primary role?
A: I still focus on critical care, except that I teach new nurses the necessary skills during orientation. When you come out of nursing school you have the basics for taking care of somebody. But there’s so much more involved: For instance, with the machines and equipment and the available tests when you take care of a patient in the critical care unit. It’s the difference between theory and practice. I talk about the physical, emotional and intellectual demands that are put on a critical care nurse. You are dealing with patients and family during one of the worst times of their lives when they have no control over what’s going on.
Q: So picking up on the point that you’d make calls to the FLDRN about potential organ donors and their loved ones, that’s very much the scenario when organ donation is a possibility. It’s correct to say, isn’t it, that you had for a long time been in favor of organ donation?
A: Absolutely. I was always a proponent of making the phone calls. I agreed that this was something we should all do. I just saw so many people who were too ill. I’d taken care of people who needed a liver transplant and didn’t get one, or who might have needed a kidney and were on dialysis for so many years. I was working with people who were on the transplant waiting list or who were waiting to get onto the list. And then five years ago I became a member of Upstate’s Organ Donor Council, and worked with FLDRN to ensure best practices for donation at the hospital.
Q: When you heard that Nonie needed a liver transplant, how did you react? Was being a healthcare professional something that helped you in that situation?
A: As a nurse and then an educator, I thought I fully understood. There was my work on the Donor Council. And, as a nurse, you talk to families who have donated, you talk to recipients. You meet all of these people in the work that you do. You really think you know what the process is like and how people feel. I can honestly tell you [and at this point, Kate tears up and has to pause for a moment] you have no idea of how much it means to have someone donate an organ and save somebody’s life. The reality is you only understand when you go through it. I thank God every day that somebody thought enough to sign up to be a donor and to donate a liver so that my sister could live. It’s a miracle.
Q: When you talk to nurses who have just come out of nursing school, do you mention organ donation?
A: Yes, organ donation does form part of the curriculum. There’s a four-hour class that they are required to attend. Bill Sainsbury, a hospital services associate for FLDRN, teaches them about it. It’s really effective when Bill brings guests along as well—donor family members, transplant recipients or people waiting, to actually talk to the new nurses. This way, the take-away message is so much more poignant to people. They learn that you don’t need your organs when you leave; there is someone who you can help.
I would hope all of my colleagues see the value of signing up to be organ donors and encouraging others to do the same. It’s important to follow best practices such as making that call to FLDRN.
Q: Based on your professional background, and then the very personal experience with Nonie, what message would you like to share with your colleagues—the doctors and nurses at all the hospitals in the FLDRN service area?
A: As a nurse or educator, trying to save lives, I have seen a connection between what I do every day and the hope offered by transplants. Quite simply, transplants save lives. That’s what we do in hospitals, we save lives. I would hope all of my colleagues see the value of signing up to be organ donors and encouraging others to do the same. It’s important to follow best practices such as making that call to FLDRN, and allowing the FLDRN staff members to talk to families to offer them the opportunity to donate if their loved one wasn’t already a registered donor.
Q: So looking back, the liver transplant saved Nonie’s life and certainly changed yours.
A: Yes, and that’s why I hope my colleagues will also help to get the facts out about organ donation, counteracting the myths that surround it.
Q: Can you name the myth that bothers you the most?
A: There’s this prevailing belief by some that doctors and nurses will not work as hard to save someone’s life if they are a registered donor. This is so far from the truth! At every single hospital, we do everything possible to take care of patients. We have no idea that they are a registered donor. Sometimes, when our best efforts fail, there can be hope for someone like Nonie and her family—and also comfort for the family of the donor, knowing that their loved one rescued someone’s life. As I said, organ donation is a miracle.