When kidneys fail, there are two main treatment choices: dialysis or transplant. According to the National Kidney Foundation (NKF), for many people a successful kidney transplant can provide a better quality of life. Kidney transplant may mean greater freedom, reduced cost, more energy and a less strict diet than patients on dialysis. The NKF reports that 100,791 people in the United States are currently awaiting kidney transplant, waiting an average of 3.6 years for a compatible match.
Nurses play an integral role in helping patients go through the transplant process and helping match live donors with patients in need of a kidney. Transplant nurses specialize in working with patients before, during and after their surgeries, but the role of the nurse has expanded as the technology behind organ transplantation evolves. To learn more about the multifaceted world of transplant nursing, we asked three nurses to discuss the different roles they play in helping patients with kidney failure find success through kidney transplantation.
Empowering Patients as a Nurse Practitioner
As a nurse practitioner, DeFeo McCormick sees patients with end-stage renal disease who are awaiting transplants, as well as those who are interested in donating a kidney. She also sees kidney transplant recipients for routine follow-ups in the clinic, or for concerns such as rejection, infection and blood pressure management. A large part of her job involves educating patients and families about test results, treatment recommendations and self-care tips.
“I love building relationships with patients and families and providing education that enables them to be active members of their own healthcare team,” DeFeo McCormick said. “In kidney transplant, the survival of the transplant depends on patients adhering to their medication plan, every day for the rest of their lives. For people who are just diagnosed with kidney conditions, they can often help slow disease progression through dietary and lifestyle modifications. I am passionate about giving patients the information they need so they have the knowledge needed to take ownership over their health.”
DeFeo McCormick is also involved with the National Kidney Foundation Council of Advanced Practitioners (NKF-CAP) as an advocate for nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants who work in nephrology. As a member of NKF-CAP, she attended and presented at the NKF 2016 Spring Clinical Meetings, and has had the opportunity to author a journal article and volunteer at NKF kidney health events.
From Clinical Transplant Coordinator to Nonprofit Founder
Susan Rees, RN, BSN, of Perrysburg, Ohio, served as a hospital’s clinical transplant coordinator before becoming a founder of the Alliance for Paired Kidney Donation (APKD), a nonprofit organization devoted to kidney paired donation (KPD), a recent transformation in transplant technology that pools living donors and recipients to increase the likelihood of matches.
Previously, if a willing donor was incompatible with their intended recipient (which is the case for approximately one-third of transplant patients), the patient had to start the process of seeking a donor all over again. Now, incompatible pairs have another option, enrolling in a database like APKD that will match pairs with others in similar situations, and it often shortens the waiting time for transplantation.
As a former nurse who worked as a transplant coordinator, Rees understands the important role nurses play in the transplant process. She is immensely grateful for the nurse coordinators APKD works with at more than 70 transplant centers in 27 states.
“It takes a team to save a life, but the nurses I work with are the unmentioned heroes because they’re really the ones that make this happen,” Rees said. “Kidney paired donation is all about the logistics. When we find a match, it’s the nurse coordinators at transplant centers who truly get everything in motion to make the transplants possible.”
Looking Back on Nearly 50 Years as a Nephrology Nurse
Carolyn Atkins, BS, RN, CCTC, is a renal transplant coordinator and nephrology nursing consultant in Dallas, Tex., who has been practicing for 48 years.
After she graduated from nursing school in 1969, Atkins started on the urology floor with a physician, Paul Peters, MD, who had recently performed the first successful kidney transplant in the state of Texas. Her experience at the forefront of transplant medicine led her to pursue a career as one of the first nurse “transplant coordinators.”
“Years ago, you were a one-woman or one-man show, at least in transplant nursing,” said Atkins. “You were responsible for patient education, the evaluation of living donors and the examination of recipients. Now, there is a coordinator for each aspect of the transplant process, which I think is much better. We’re much more effective when we can work as a team to obtain the best results.”
Throughout her career, Atkins has been highly involved with the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) Council of Nephrology Nurses and Technicians (CNNT), serving on the Board of Directors and as committee chair, where she reviewed NKF transplant guidelines, met with leaders in transplant technology and helped produce a booklet called Understanding Chronic Kidney Disease, an Introductory Manual. Still, her favorite memories are the experiences she’s had getting to know her patients.
“For me, the best part of my career has been seeing someone who is really sick return to good health,” said Atkins. “I’ve seen children grow up and go to college, get married and have children of their own. In fact, I still keep in contact with patients from 40 years ago.”
For more information on kidney disease, visit the National Kidney Foundation website. To learn more about the role of a transplant nurse, visit DiscoverNursing.com. For more information on Susan Rees’s paired kidney donation organization, visit the Alliance for Paired Kidney Donation website.