Ingrid Palacios is never apologetic when approaching a grieving family of a potential organ donor. Organ, eye, and tissue donation is rarely part of a typical end-of-life care discussion but Palacios said it is a lasting legacy and a decision that can provide solace and healing around the deathbed. “It isn’t easy to approach the bereaved, who are often facing a sudden and unexpected death, and yet when I explain how this is an opportunity to help other people, it turns loss into hope. The questions start to flow,” said Palacios, who is a liaison between the New England Organ Bank (NEOB), the oldest organ procurement organization in the country, and possible donor families. Palacios is part of a team that facilitates organ and tissue donation – corneas, bone marrow, skin grafts, and bone – to help save the lives of those on a transplant list, including victims of accident, disease, and deformities. Palacios spoke with Globe correspondent Cindy Atoji Keene about the difficult process of maximizing organ donation in intensive care units and emergency departments.
“I had a personal experience with organ donation seven years ago when my best friend committed suicide. He was healthy and young and able to save the life of his very own mother by giving her a kidney. She had been very sick and was on the transplant list – which, by the way, has over 120,000 people on it who are waiting for an organ. She showed up at his funeral, still frail from the recent surgery. It amazed me so much that one of his organs was still alive inside of her. I still get emotional when I think about it. Because of this experience, five years ago when I heard about this job with New England Organ Bank, I was very interested in the position. I had the experience and background but had to do a lot of soul searching – could I work every day near the dying and the deceased? But I believe so strongly in the mission of organ donation and feel privileged to offer it to families. We are on-call 24/7 to work with families grieving and in crisis. I get dispatched to hospitals with the Boston Regional Team, often to see a patient who has lost all neuro-function. The family is on site and usually awaiting the results of brain death testing. After this has been confirmed, I go in and tell them about the gift of organ donation. There is an entire team that works with me – clinical directors, hospital and transplant personnel – and we make a collaborative plan. Families want to know what will happen with funeral services but there is no visual interference or impact with services. This is a family-driven process and we accommodate all religions and cultures. I meet families experiencing so much pain but my mission is to save lives. I am a dual advocate, for both the donor families but also the recipients on the waiting list who aren’t present but will die soon if they don’t have an organ. Am I an organ donor myself? You bet.”