Nov 02, 2015
By Laura Eggertson

Educating and leading by example

Maureen O’Connor chose a unique way to decrease suffering

John Gardiner, Vancouver Island University

When Maureen O’Connor logged in to Facebook one day last February, the story from a young man who had been waiting eight years for a kidney transplant caught her attention.

O’Connor is a professor in the bachelor of science in nursing program and interim associate dean of Health and Human Services at Vancouver Island University (VIU) in Nanaimo, B.C. She has seen the toll that kidney disease takes on people and their families. “They’re trying to manage their health, home, family and work. The need to have dialysis further complicates the experience of living with a chronic illness.” It occurred to her that donating a kidney was the embodiment of the attitude she tries to instil in her students.

“My philosophy of nursing is to take action to decrease people’s suffering,” she says. “Being a live kidney donor is a way of decreasing suffering. I thought, ‘Why not do it?’”

Many years before, while a high school student in Saint John, N.B., O’Connor adopted her school’s motto, “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are, now.” She says she has lived by it throughout her career in clinical practice and teaching. After graduating from the University of New Brunswick with her BN in 1990, she worked on hospital medical-surgical units and rehabilitation centres in Houston, Tex., and in Fredericton before going back to school to earn an MScN at the University of Ottawa. When she moved to Nanaimo, O’Connor worked in rehabilitation nursing until she began teaching at VIU in 2002.

O’Connor started to research the process of becoming a live kidney donor as soon as the idea occurred to her. Her first contact was with BC Transplant, which oversees organ donation and transplantation in her home province. She learned about the urgent need for donors for the hundreds of people waiting for transplants, the agency’s anonymous live donor kidney program and the advances that have been made in the transplant procedure.

O’Connor’s excellent health made her a good candidate. At 52, with her family and career established, O’Connor believed she could donate a kidney at no great hardship to herself. With the support of her husband and children, she filled out the forms to start the process.

Before she could submit them, social media again intervened to alter the course of her life. Gina Polisky, a high school friend of one of O’Connor’s friends, posted an urgent appeal on Facebook (a growing trend among people seeking organ donors) about her husband’s need for a kidney.

Murray Polisky had declining kidney function and needed a transplant to stay off dialysis and, ultimately, to survive. O’Connor’s friend told her about the couple and put her in touch with them.

Once it was confirmed that O’Connor and Polisky shared the same blood type, she named him as the recipient on the forms. “With a potential recipient identified, my commitment was even stronger. I really wanted this to happen for him.” The prospect of major surgery with a six- to eight-week recovery period did not discourage her, and she underwent a series of medical screening tests.

In July of this year, O’Connor travelled to Vancouver for the surgery. Although she had some complications from a reaction to the analgesics she received, both she and Polisky recovered well.

She jokes that the surgery and hospital stay provided an extreme opportunity to learn about health care from a patient’s perspective. “The overall experience magnified the importance of what nurses do and the impact they have because of their skills in critical thinking, patient advocacy and prioritization.” She also noted the significance of each small gesture her nurses made. In class, O’Connor explains to students how all of these actions helped her, so they realize how much their role matters.

She is keen on finding ways to demystify organ donation and inspire others to see it as a viable thing to do. O’Connor says she is not suggesting that other nurses become living donors, stressing that nurses already do enough. Her message to them is simply to focus on what they can do to ease suffering and that they matter very much to their patients.

10 questions with Maureen O’Connor

What is one word you would use to describe yourself?

If you could change anything about yourself, what would it be?
It’s too long a list to narrow it down to one thing

What are you most proud of having accomplished?
I have three children who are confident, kind and respectful

What is one thing about you that people would be surprised to learn?
I like dressing up as a clown on occasion and surprising people (in a good way)

“If I had more free time, I would...”
Learn to speak French

Where did you go on your last vacation?
Vancouver General Hospital

Name one place in the world you’d most like to visit.

What was the last good book you read?
The Elephant in the Office: Super-Simple Strategies for Difficult Conversations at Work by Diane A. Ross

What was the best piece of career advice you’ve received?
Never give up

What is the best thing about your current job?
My students’ enthusiasm, commitment, intelligence, energy and authenticity is wonderful

Laura Eggertson is a freelance journalist in Ottawa.

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