'Do what you can to help': Critical care organ donation coordinator Rhonda Porter says opting to give life helps families find comfort in death

Organ donor coordinator Rhonda Porter surrounded by items for comfort and care kits given to grieving families (Kristen Lipscombe/NSHA).
Organ donor coordinator Rhonda Porter surrounded by items for comfort and care kits given to grieving families (Kristen Lipscombe/NSHA).

For Rhonda Porter, comforting a grieving family after learning their loved one will pass away is an important part of being a critical care organ donation coordinator.

After families go through what is often one of the worst experiences of their lives, Porter and her fellow organ donation coordinators have the difficult duty of educating them about the organ and tissue donation process.

"While they're still very sad and devastated, they realize their (loved one is) going to be able to help somebody, and this gives meaning to their death," Porter said during a break in duties at the Legacy of Life office inside the Abbie J. Lane Memorial Building on the Halifax Infirmary site of the QEII Health Sciences Centre. "Something good can come out of death."

In fact, Porter said, sometimes families who have just lost someone important in their lives are now approaching health care staff about organ and tissue donation.

"It leaves a legacy for the lost family member, and it helps those left behind; it helps them with their grieving process. When they think about the loss, they know that there is also life carrying on because of the loss."

Porter is a critical care nurse with 28 years of experience in everything from general surgery to clinical nurse education, and a lot in between on various surgical units. Most of that work, however, has been on the medical, surgical neurological and trauma critical care unit at the Halifax Infirmary, where she regularly cared for potential organ donors "and saw first-hand the positive impact that organ donation can have on families."

She has also been personally impacted by the importance of organ and tissue donation, with several family members requiring transplants, giving them the opportunity to experience milestones such as graduations and weddings.

All this motivated Porter to apply for a critical care organ donation coordinator position that opened up about a year ago. She believes she has finally found "a calling" in her new job.

"I believe this is where I belong," said the Beaver Bank resident, who is originally from Grand Falls-Windsor, Nfld.

Since starting in her new role, Porter has successfully applied for a Comfort and Care Grant from the QEII Foundation, which has provided $1,500 for her team to put together special kits for families who find themselves in hospital in the midst of a loved one's life-threatening emergency.

"I can still picture caring for an organ donor patient," Porter said of what inspired her to write the grant. "So I'm there, and the families come in the middle of the night because their loved one is there and they're not going to see them (again). And they hug each other because they are freezing cold and they're in shock."

So Porter and her team created Comfort and Care Kits for these families, which include blankets for everyone; essentials such as toothbrushes, mouth wash, deodorant and other daily essentials for adults; along with teddy bears, markers, colouring sheets and a book called Lifetimes for children, which "explains death to a really small child, (even) the short life span of an ant."

"We do what you can to help."

Porter's primary message for the public is to do exactly that – help others – by opting in as an organ and tissue donor.

"Sign your donor card and talk to your family," she urged. "Your loved ones need to know your wishes. Your family having the knowledge and understanding of what you want, helps them significantly to make a decision."