Jennifer Fink | NursingLink
Want to work on the cutting edge of science? Enjoy patient teaching? Consider a career as a transplant nurse.
Transplant nurses work with patients who receive kidney, liver, pancreas, heart, lung, small bowel and combination transplants. Transplant nurses also care for living donors, the family members, friends and occasional strangers who donate organs to patients in need.
Demand for organ transplants – and qualified transplant nurses – is high. At present, over 28,000 Americans get transplants each year. Many more wait on transplant lists for suitable donors.
Transplant nurses provide basic pre- and post-surgical care to both organ donors and organ recipients. They also administer powerful anti-rejection drugs, closely monitor patients for signs of organ rejection and teach patients and their families all about life after a transplant.
While organ transplants have been around since the 1950s, transplant nursing is a relatively new nursing specialty. The International Transplant Nurses Society, formed in 1992, was “the first professional nursing organization to promote the education and clinical practice excellence of nurses caring for solid organ transplant patients.” Currently, the organization has almost 2000 members from 32 countries.
The Nitty-Gritty Details
Transplant nurses typically work in large university hospitals and academic medical centers. Transplant patients are often grouped by organ, with kidney, liver and pancreas transplant patients on one unit and heart and lung transplant patients on another. Nurses, therefore, frequently specialize by organ as well.
A transplant nurse’s workload may include patients who are preparing for surgery as well as patients recovering from surgery. Transplant nurses answer any patient questions prior to surgery, ensure that consents are signed, monitor patients’ conditions and, often, draw blood for pre-surgery labs. In the case of deceased donor transplants, these actions must be performed quickly and efficiently, since time is of the essence. The sooner patients get to surgery following their fateful call (“We have an organ for you.”), the better the outcome.
Post-transplant, nurses monitor patients’ incisions, hang antibiotics and antirejection drugs, administer pain medications and monitor patients’ labs and function for any signs of infection or rejection. The anti-rejection drugs required to prevent patients’ bodies from rejecting the new organs increases the risk of infection, because they basically wipe out a patient’s natural immunity. Transplant nurses also watch for signs of organ function. Transplanted organs, especially those from deceased donors, may take a while before they begin functioning in the body. So a nurse taking care of a kidney transplant patient, for instance, would carefully monitor his intake and output as well as his BUN and creatinine.