Missed Opportunity to Donate Sparks Interest in Working for RMLEB

By Rae Price - November 27, 2023

Claire Centko logs a cornea that has just arrived at the RMLEB lab for evaluation and processing. Photo by Rae Price.

Many people are drawn to jobs in organ, eye and tissue donation because of an experience where a family member was a donor. Claire Centko was drawn to her job as a donor recovery coordinator at Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Bank (RMLEB) because of a donation that didn’t happen.

When Claire’s mother had an aneurysm several years ago the family immediately made plans to honor her decision to be an organ, eye and tissue donor. However, due to the nature of her condition she did not pass in a hospital, but was moved to a nursing home facility, Claire said at that point her mother was only eligible to donate her eyes, but when care was withdrawn, she didn’t pass within the time window to make donation possible.

The inability to donate was trying on Claire’s family. She explained that her mother, who had a long career as an elementary school teacher, was always a kind and giving person, and not being able to fulfill one of her final wishes to continue helping someone else was devastating.

Overcoming fears
Claire commented that her mother really needed skilled nursing, something Claire said was not available in their area. She said the nursing home experience left her with a bad feeling toward that type of facility, vowing to never step foot in one again.

Later, she was determined to overcome her fear and moved to Colorado, which she said was a fear factor in itself. “I moved here on a whim to work in [a] nursing facility and conquered that, and it felt great to be able to help people,” she said.

Working in a health care facility helped prepare Claire for her job at the eye bank. “I learned again what it’s like on the other side of things. To learn more about the processes, so I was not nearly as terrified about it and I actually get to help people now,” she explained.

“Honestly when I found out I had the opportunity to work here it really drove me to work 10 times harder to get to this point, because I’ve seen what it’s like on the family side and I can relate to that. Now I see how much work goes into actually making donation happen. It’s been a really interesting journey to see both sides of it,” she said.

The experiences with her mother and working in a nursing facility gave her a renewed sense of compassion when talking to donor families. She explained a difficult part of her job is knowing that families are going through a rough time, but need to be contacted quickly since eye tissue recovery is extremely time sensitive with the optimal recovery being within eight hours of time of death.

“Families are often really overwhelmed with calls by then, so approaching with a kind manner is important; you have to be really conscious of that,” she said. But there is also reward for those tough calls, “The most rewarding part, and I just had one last night, is when the family is so excited and happy that we can help make donation happen and take one thing off their plate as well,” Claire said.

Recovery coordinator duties
Claire starts her day at the eye bank by reviewing referrals (notices from hospitals of decedents who may be eligible to donate eye tissue) and making sure they are entered into RMLEB’s computer system. If authorization for recovery has not already been received, RMLEB recovery coordinators, like Claire, will call the family to discuss donation options.

Claire said those discussions can help family members realize closure and a sense of peace knowing their loved one can continue helping someone else. She continued, “There is also a lot of education involved in helping families understand more about the donation process. There is a lot of misunderstanding, if you haven’t worked in donation, and not knowing what to expect when someone calls. A lot of times families will question ‘what even is donation? How do you do it?’ So, mostly they get excited after learning about donation opportunities.” Claire said.

“It’s not their best day and I sometimes go into protector mode when talking to my families,” she explained. “I want them to know, ‘I’m here for you and your family’”.

She also reviews tissue that may have come in during the prior shift and makes sure it is properly logged in RMLEB’s computer system. Additional duties include packing and preparing recovery kits for technicians and making sure the necessary supplies are ready to be used when a technician is dispatched for an eye tissue recovery.

Job opportunities 

People can pretty much start in many different roles and work their way up the ladder. This is a good way for me to start and learn the whole process.”

Challenging, yet rewarding
“The most challenging part of the job is, or has been, conquering all of my fears like worrying about making sure that I am treating my people right, like my donors and their families,” Claire said. “Moving out here was a huge fear, but mostly making sure that I am being compassionate and being there for the families, being the best advocate I can for the family.”

Some family discussions can also be challenging if the next of kin is especially resistant or seems angry about being asked to donate on behalf of their loved one who was not a registered donor. The purpose of the discussion is to make families aware of the opportunity to donate, not to push them into a decision, she explained.

Even discussions with family members of a decedent who is a registered donor can sometimes be difficult if they don’t understand the process. Someone from the family of a donor must be contacted to complete a donor risk assessment interview; these questions go over travel and lifestyle history and are similar to the questions one is asked when donating blood.

Claire said camaraderie among co-workers is helpful, “If you do an approach that was difficult, others can help boost you back up. We’ve all been there, it can be reassuring knowing that the next one may be better,” she said.

The most rewarding part of Claire’s job she said is, “Being the best advocate I can for the family. When you get somebody who is actually having a hard time and they say, “thank you”, I give a sigh of relief helping to make someone’s experience even a tiny bit better.”

Finally, Claire offers this advice for someone who may be considering a job in organ, eye and tissue donation,
“I would definitely say be prepared to learn a lot. But also, be prepared to deal with a lot of grief as well, that can be a little taxing and heavy at the end of the day, but always remember that you are helping people and you’re making it happen. And, you’re also helping the recipients. You’re helping the donor live on.”

One of Claire’s duties is to help pack supplies for recovery technicians.

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