Making a life’s work out of second chances: Three transplant nurses share their stories

By Heather Svokos

From left, UTSW nurses Shannon Chalk, Patricia Lee, and Kelly Murphy
From left, UTSW nurses Shannon Chalk, Patricia Lee, and Kelly Murphy

The revelation came during a staff meeting. The nurses on the 7 South-Surgical Intensive Care Unit at William P. Clements Jr. University Hospital wanted to liven up the usual agenda with a little fun. It was April 19 – Transplant Nurses Day – and Nurses Week was just around the corner.

Shannon Chalk offered a suggestion: “Why don’t we just throw out some trivia questions?”

And so it began.

The nurses took turns tossing out facts. One of them was Patricia Lee, who’s been with UT Southwestern for 36 years. She mentioned that she had cared for the Transplant Program’s first heart patient at St. Paul Hospital, in 1988.

“You took care of the first heart?” Ms. Chalk asked. “I recovered the first liver patient!”

Then Kelly Murphy chimed in: “Well, I took care of the first kidney-pancreas!”

The three nurses had all worked on the groundbreaking “firsts” in their field at UT Southwestern – but had never made the connection until that day. And the best part? All three are still at UTSW, all made the transition from St. Paul to Clements University Hospital in 2014, and all work in the same unit today.

First heart: June 27, 1988

Patricia Lee, BSN, RN, CCRN, is now a Surgical ICU nurse. In 1980, she began working in the Cardiovascular Intensive Care at St. Paul.

In 1988, the team that included Ms. Lee was set for the first heart transplant in the new transplant program, led by Dr. W. Steves Ring, Professor of Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery. The excitement was palpable.

“The elevator doors would open, and everybody’s smiling,” Ms. Lee says. “It was like the whole hospital was anticipating the heart transplant. I still remember the goosebumps.”

The surgery was a success. “It was very special,” Ms. Lee says. “It always gives me a chill when I see the transplants going on. Things have changed so much in transplantation. It’s really meticulous. Times have changed for the good.”

First kidney-pancreas: Jan. 30, 2007

The UT Southwestern transplant team was about to perform its first kidney-pancreas transplant, and Kelly Murphy was ready.

Ms. Murphy, BSN, RN, is now Nurse Manager of the 7 South-Surgical Intensive Care Unit, but she started at St. Paul as a nurse extern in 2003.

The patient was very sick, and to heighten everyone’s nerves even more, he was also a physician.

“When we care for a nurse or a physician, our anxiety level goes up just a tad because you’re dealing with an expert,” Ms. Murphy says. “It was like a media event. There were so many people there; it was almost like a code blue situation in the room. All eyes were on us.”

The patient did well, with a lot of monitoring and time in the ICU.

Her experience on the case, and her constant updates to the transplant team, led her to become a transplant coordinator for two years. She eventually went back to being a nurse in the ICU, where she worked her way up to a manager role.

First liver: Oct. 29, 2007

This was going to be big, and Shannon Chalk knew it. It was UT Southwestern’s first liver transplant.

Ms. Chalk, BSN, RN, CCRN-CMC, Assistant Nurse Manager, had started in Medical/Surgical Intensive Care six years earlier. At that time, Patricia Lee was one of her nurse preceptors, and Kelly Murphy – now a nurse manager – was still a nursing student.

That night in 2007, Ms. Chalk was working as the night shift assistant manager when she and another nurse got the call: The patient was coming back from the operating room. Their patient recovered well.

Such a surgery can be six to 12 hours long, Ms. Murphy explains, and when liver transplant patients come back from surgery, they are extremely sick because of all the blood they’ve lost; the liver helps blood to clot. But liver transplant patients begin to heal quickly.

“When their new liver hasn’t started functioning yet, they need so much blood,” Ms. Chalk says. “And the best thing is when you come back the next day and they don’t need as much support anymore. And the day after that, they’re sitting up in a chair. And three days before they probably couldn’t even talk to you. That’s so rewarding.”

The gift of life

Along with the special skills, preparation, and equipment that transplant nurses are trained to use, their unique roles sometimes require them to be cheerleaders of a sort.

Some transplant patients are in the hospital for so long – sometimes months – that they can become depressed, Ms. Lee says.

“Sometimes they want to give up,” she says. “But as a team, we cheer them on, we take them out, we just do the best we can. Those are the hard times.”

But the nurses’ eyes light up when they talk about their transplant patients being released from the unit.

“We kind of might do parades sometimes,” Ms. Murphy says with a grin. “Especially if they’ve been here a long time. We get a bunch of nurses together, kind of like a Friday night football game, and cheer them on their way out of the unit. It’s a celebration, because with transplantation, the saying is the gift of life, and it truly is a gift of life, because it’s given them another chance.”