Walking the Transplant Path With Patients
Several times a day, Brenda Garrett, RN, MSN, MHA, shares her personal photos with patients in the University of Chicago Medicine organ transplant unit.
One shows a fragile Garrett in a wheelchair leaving the hospital after her liver transplant. "I experienced the same things that our patients are going through," said Garrett, who began working in the unit after she underwent her lifesaving transplant. "I encourage them to walk the path, even though it’s challenging."
Garrett, 56, started working at the University of Chicago Medicine in the Comer Children’s Hospital neonatal ICU almost 25 years ago. Then, in 2006, she was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis -- a disease in which the body’s immune system attacks the bile ducts of the liver. Chronic inflammation causes blockages, narrowing of the ducts and recurrent infections. Although medications can reduce these complications, there is no cure for the disease. The progressive condition eventually leads to liver failure and the need for a new organ.
For many years, Garrett’s symptoms -- which sometimes required hospitalization -- were managed by a hepatologist. But when attempts to drain the narrowed ducts became ineffective, Garrett’s care was transferred to Helen S. Te, MD, medical director of the adult liver transplant program at UChicago Medicine.
"Brenda was suffering from frequent infections and became malnourished," Te said. "Transplantation was the only option left for her." Te put Garrett on the list for a donor organ.
Garrett says her medical team made sure she had a clear understanding throughout the process. "The support I received was unbelievable," she said. She remembers transplant surgeon, John Renz, MD, PhD, reassuring her during one of her hospitalizations: "He told me, ‘Just hold on, Brenda. We will get you a liver and you will have a second chance at life.'"
The day came in May 2013, just over a year after she was put on the list. By that time, she was down to 95 pounds and could only eat a spoonful of food at a time. Her husband, sister and members of her church took turns caring for Garrett at her Flossmoor, Ill., home.
"It all happened quickly after I got the call," Garrett remembered. "I was ready and I wasn’t afraid. I couldn’t continue to live the way I was living. I knew the surgery would go perfectly."
After recuperating from the successful transplant, Garrett took the job of case manager/patient care coordinator for the medical center’s solid organ transplant program. Working with patients waiting for a liver or kidney, she helps them transition from illness to transplant to home care.
"I was given my life back," said Garrett, who exudes warmth and optimism. "After transplant, life became more significant. And now I am helping people who need my services. It’s a joy."
Te says she was ecstatic when she learned Garrett was joining the transplant team. "First of all, Brenda is a can-do person," she said. "And of course she understands our patients’ challenges. She not only gives them a first-hand account of her experience but she also inspires them."