Transplant nurses celebrate their specialty this week and raise awareness for the specific area of nursing during this year’s Transplant Nurses Week, April 26 through May 3.

Transplant nurses help patients throughout the donation, surgical, recovery, or lifelong maintenance stages of tissue and organ transplants. With what is generally a long process that could begin with a patient’s end-stage disease and the need for a transplant to the successful long-term recovery of living organ donors and organ transplant recipients, transplant nurses develop close relationships with their patients.

Transplant nurses will care for all ages of patients and for people in all stages of health. They could be caring for a healthy individual donating an organ or a patient who is significantly ill and waiting for a donation. They will work with tissues and organs that can come from living and deceased donors and will navigate the emotional complexities that come with all donation stories.

As patients begin the complex process of preparing for transplantation, nurses will serve as excellent resources of information, education, and compassion for patients and families. A transplant nurse will help patients prepare physically for surgery, will be present for the surgery, will assist in their recovery in the hospital, and then will help them coordinate care for their return home. They will be able to work with patients to show them how to take care of any wounds, use any necessary equipment, and will explain some of the symptoms or changes they need to watch for and report that could signal organ rejection or an infection.

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If you’re thinking of becoming a transplant nurse, the path begins with the general experience that  many other nurses pursue on the way to a specialty. You’ll need to obtain a bachelor’s degree in nursing (when you’re looking for employment, you might find that some organizations may accept an associate’s degree and others may require a master’s degree). Upon completion of your degree program, you’ll take the NCLEX to become qualified as a registered nurse. Prospective transplant nurses will want to work for at least two years in nursing with at least one year of that time working directly with organ transplant units.

Once you’ve secured a position in the field, you’ll spend time gaining experience and working on varied cases before you take the next important step to certification. Although certification isn’t required, it is valuable for a nurse to provide the best care possible and to continue to improve as a practicing nurse. Although nurses sometimes worry they won’t pass a certification exam—and some even fail to pursue the path because of that worry—remember a certification exam in your specialty is a focused test. You’ll be taking an exam on the techniques and practices that are generally part of your everyday routine. You’ll need to study, but you won’t be tested on obscure details of another nursing practice.

Nurses in this specialty have access to several professional organizations where they can build strong networks, further their education with certifications, reflect on the profession with others, and influence policy that could impact transplant nurses and their patients.

The International Transplant Nurses Society (check out the ITNS Facebook page), sponsors of Transplant Nurses Week, offers a way to connect with other professionals with members across the globe. Even if they are based in the United States, nurses might want to check out the resources of the Australia-based Transplant Nurses’ Association. And NATCO, the Organization for Transplant and Donation Professionals, is a helpful resource for nurses wishing to find out more about research, professional training, and professional opportunities.

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As a transplant nurse, you’ll be part of a team that is helping donors and recipients manage the process with the best possible outcomes. Your team could include everything from surgeons to social workers, and your input will be invaluable as you advocate for your patients.

This is a challenging and rewarding area of nursing. Use this week to spread awareness about all transplant nurses do.

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil
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