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A Transplant Nurse Reflects on 20 Years of Service

Photo: Courtesy of Sandra Cupples

Many nurses get into the profession because they want to help people, and in the case of transplant nursing, that experience doesn’t end when a patient walks out the door. In fact, transplant nurses oversee their patients’ care from the initial meeting, when an organ donation is deemed necessary, to several years after they have undergone their transplant surgery.

Becoming an ally

For Sandra Cupples, President of the International Transplant Nurses Society, that nurse-patient bond is exactly what has compelled her to stay in the industry since entering it in 1995.

The Washington D.C.-area healthcare professional began working with patients after receiving her doctorate in nursing, and then researching the stress and coping mechanisms of transplant patients and their families.

“I was hooked,” Cupples says. “From that point on, it was part of my DNA.”

Cupples explains she witnessed “how incredibly brave” many of the families were for enduring the challenge of seeing a loved one fight for his or her life while assuming duties they may not normally — like being a breadwinner or taking care of the kids. The same goes for the patients, she says.

“I like to describe them (the patients) as hoping for life while preparing for death,” she explains. That is, “They’re hoping that organ is going to come in time, but realistically, they know there are things they have to do to prepare their family if it doesn’t.”

After conducting research, Cupples entered the clinical arena, helping patients and their families do just those things.

Witnessing bravery

In her memory bank are stories of heart transplant recipients who strived to make it to their children’s next graduation, who met their donor’s relative, and even one about a patient who was so excited over the news he was matched with a donor heart that he got a speeding ticket en route to the hospital. She recalls a phone call with the officer who pulled him over: “I said, ‘Yes sir, officer, it is for real. The donor heart is here. And he said, ‘Okay, I’ll let him go.’”

“There are very few types of nursing that provide those type of relationships,” Cupples says.

She points out that, as with many medical professions amid an aging global population, an increasing number of nurses are needed each year — and transplant nurses are no exception.

“My advice to any aspiring nurse would be to go for it,” Cupples says. “You’ll never regret it. It’s hard work, but it’s incredibly rewarding.”

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