Caren Shank was there when her husband Steve took his first breath with new lungs. His own had been destroyed by pulmonary fibrosis, a consequence of the rare genetic disorder called Hermansky-Pudlak Syndrome, which he was born with. A lung transplant at Mayo Clinic let him breathe easy again.
Caren was a sponsored projects specialist at Mayo Clinic at the time and was there with Steve in the years that followed — precious time Steve spent making memories with his children, Ani and Elliott, and other family and friends.
And she was there when Steve took his last breath on Feb. 4, 2019 — 834 days after his transplant.
"I thought then that I knew a lot about organ donation," Caren says. She would learn even more in a new role that seemed like a perfect fit for her.
Over the past eight months Caren has served as a hospital partner liaison for LifeSource, one of 56 organ procurement organizations in the U.S. In that role, she spends her days connecting with staff at Mayo Clinic in Rochester and Olmsted Medical Center, educating them about — and advocating for — organ donation.
It's a role she feels uniquely prepared for.
There are currently more than 100,000 people waiting for a transplant in the U.S. But there are not nearly enough organs to meet that need. Each day, 17 people die waiting for a transplant.
Giving more people like Steve more time depends on increasing the number of donors. To do that, Caren helps doctors and nurses understand which patients meet the criteria for donation. "Potential donors are patients that Mayo can do no more for," Caren says. "They are on ventilated support or ECMO confronting end-of-life decisions or declared brain dead."
When a patient meets donation criteria, one of Caren's colleagues discusses donation with the person's family.
"We have angels on our staff who are trained to have those conversations," Caren says.
They're not easy conversations. But they're conversations that are required by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. And they're conversations that can lead to meaning in loss.
"When a loved one donates their organs, it can provide a family with a glimmer of hope at a very dark time," Caren says. Especially if the person had expressed a desire to donate while they were alive.
"In my experience, it gives families comfort to know they're honoring their loved ones' wishes," Caren says.
That's something she knows firsthand. It's something she's also heard from Amalie Frankel, the mother of Steve's donor.
"I was so proud to find out that Tommy had checked the organ donation box on his driver's license," Amalie says. "When tragedy strikes and loss is inevitable, another life can be saved through donation. Life is filled with happiness and sadness, and this is an example of that combination."
Thanks to the efforts of Caren and her colleagues to raise awareness, organ donation is increasing. That's also a testament to bedside staff.
"Donation is a miracle that starts with a referral from our staff, usually from one of our nurses," Caren says. "It has a huge impact."
Mayo Clinic and LifeSource recognize the magnitude of the loss that makes that impact possible. Donors are recognized with an Honor Walk from the ICU to the OR where their organs will be recovered. A Donate Life flag is raised for 24 hours to recognize and honor the gift that has been given. Mayo Clinic has also established an honor wall for donors at the Saint Marys Campus.
Families whose loved ones donate their organs are provided with resources after donation, as well.
"LifeSource has an aftercare program to heal families," Caren says. "We provide connections and support."
As a widow herself, Caren knows just how important that kind of support is. And she knows Steve would be grateful that she's working for an organization that provides it to others.
"He would be so proud," she says.
Editor's note: Visit LifeSource to learn more about donation and how to become a donor. And make sure your family knows your wishes. "In Minnesota, nearly 60 percent of people are registered donors," Caren says. "But their families might not know that."