It’s not easy being Christy Corbitt
A Life SaverOrgan-Procurement Coordinator Christy Corbitt Walks a Delicate Line Between Life and Death
By Tony Bridges
Most days, it isn’t easy being Christy Corbitt. Not even a little.
She enters people’s lives at their worst moments, when their loved ones are in the hospital, dead or dying. She must comfort these strangers, absorb their grief, then ask them to help save another’s life by donating their loved one’s organs.
If they agree, she’s off on a marathon of tests and phone calls required to match those organs to recipients and, after many sleepless hours, has to coordinate the final surgery in a packed, sometimes tense operating room.
When it’s over, she gets a few days with her husband and her son to recover. And then the whole thing starts again.
Corbitt, talking about what’s been her life for the last four years, smiles at the obvious question: Why put herself through it?
She wants to give hope, as much as possible, to the families of the dead, she explains.
“I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” she said.
Corbitt said she wasn’t sure she was qualified when she answered the newspaper ad for an organ-procurement coordinator in 2001.
She was 29 then and only recently had completed the registered nursing program at Tallahassee Community College, although she had worked for several years as a licensed practical nurse.
She figured that LifeQuest, the organ service based out of Shands Hospital in Gainesville, probably wanted a more experienced RN. But she took a chance.
Maybe it was due to her natural ability to empathize with the grieving. Or maybe it had something to do with her attitude toward organ donation. She has been on the national registry of organ donors since receiving her first driver’s license.
Either way, the nonprofit agency hired her and gave her several months worth of training, both on the job and through the North American Transplant Coordinators Organization.
It turned out to be a good move for the organization. Since joining LifeQuest, she’s earned respect from co-workers, bosses and medical professionals, according to spokeswoman Kathleen Giery.
“Christy Corbitt is a truly valued member of the LifeQuest team,” Giery said. “She has a remarkable way of taking on challenging tasks and working toward complicated solutions with a positive attitude and outlook.”
Always on Call
The first three years were the hardest.
Corbitt, the mother of a teenage son and wife of a Tallahassee police officer, was the only coordinator covering six hospitals from Panama City to Madison. She was on call 24 hours a day, with no time off unless she took vacation.
The pressure eased some last year when LifeQuest hired a second person, but the pace still is exhausting. Corbitt estimates that she sees from 10 to 15 new patients a month.
The way it starts is this: A patient is admitted to the hospital after suffering a traumatic injury. That could be from a crash, a stroke or a drug overdose.
If the patient meets certain criteria – such as having no reaction to pain stimuli and being able to breathe only with a ventilator – and brain death seems inevitable, the hospital alerts LifeQuest.
Corbitt evaluates the patient. Cancer or HIV and other communicable diseases automatically rule out donation. Otherwise, every healthy organ has potential. Even age is not a factor – the oldest liver donor on record was 92, according to Corbitt.
Once the patient has been declared brain dead, a member of the hospital staff introduces Corbitt to the family. The reactions span the scale of human emotions.
She has seen quiet sobbing and impotent rage, grateful survivors and distrustful ones. She remembers a woman who had seen a TV drama depicting the supposedly hellish lives of transplant recipients and refused to donate organs.
And “a lot of families have a hard time with brain death,” she said.
They can’t reconcile the idea of a still-beating heart with the fact that their loved one has passed away, but for the ventilator mimicking respiration. It’s something Corbitt works to help them understand, regardless of their decision on organ donation.
In fact, Corbitt said her job is not just to talk to the family about harvesting organs. She also answers questions about funeral home and financial arrangements, explains the medical-examiner process in cases of accidents and, as often as not, just listens to the expressions of grief.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with families just telling me stories about loved ones,” she said. “I’ve cried with a bunch of families.
“Our role is to be a support structure for the family. We’re there for them.”
When the Family Says ‘Yes’
Corbitt keeps a photocopied sheet – listing 10 ways to inject compassion into medicine – taped to the wall in front of her desk. At the bottom, there’s a reminder:
“Hope is not a strategy!”
She knows that donating organs will never compensate for the loss of a father, sister, husband, wife. But sometimes, helping someone else live can offer families just the slightest bit of hope.
“We hear that from families – that if it wasn’t for this, the donation, they never would have made it,” she said. “It can really help carry them through their grief. And it’s a legacy to the life their loved one lived.”
About 20 to 30 families each year say “yes.” That’s when the hardest work begins.
Corbitt will work without sleep for two days, or more, arranging for the removal and placement of the organs. She starts with a series of tests and X-rays to determine which organs are viable, and completes a 22-page questionnaire that includes medical and social histories provided by the family.
Next, she contacts the United Network for Organ Sharing to get a recipient list. There are more than 92,000 people in the country currently waiting for transplants, she said.
UNOS provides a list of possible matches for each viable organ – in young, healthy donors, that can be as many as eight – and prioritizes it according to the recipients’ health status. Corbitt has to call the transplant center for each recipient to narrow the list down to the best match.
She does all of this while still offering support to the grieving family members.
On a scale of one to 10, she puts the stress at about a seven or eight. It peaks when the time comes to actually shut off the ventilator and remove the organs.
Each transplant center receiving an organ sends its own surgeon, and each one of those surgeons is focused on his or her own patient’s needs. Corbitt, working on no sleep, has to manage the personalities – and sometimes competing priorities.
One doctor wants to give the patient a drug that will help with removal of the liver. Another argues that the drug could be a problem when trying to remove the heart. Corbitt has to figure out how to give them both what they want.
Still, “it could be a lot more stressful if you didn’t have a passion for it,” she said.
Once the removal is complete, the organs have to be rushed across the country to the recipients, some more urgently than others. For example, blood flow must be re-established to hearts within four to six hours, while kidneys have from 48 to 72 hours.
Corbitt’s work is complete when they are safely on their way.
Living Life in the Face of Death
Dealing with the pressure and intense grief that her job entails would drain anyone, Corbitt included.
“There are times when I’m not back to myself for a week,” she said.
The experiences can leave her emotional and tearful, her normally happy personality overshadowed by something more somber. Those are the times when her son, Taylor, and husband, Chris, are there to comfort her.
Taylor, even at 14, isn’t too old to hug his mom and share a few sweet words when she’s had a particularly brutal case. With Chris, she can climb onto her Honda Goldwing motorcycle and go for long cruises up into Georgia or over to Panama City.
She also counts on her friends. Most of them, especially her closest friends, work in the same field.
“No one really understands it unless they do it too,” she said.
Being able to decompress with her family and friends that way is what has helped her last so long in a field where the average burnout time is 18 months. It also helps to believe that her work is not something she does, but something she lives.
“I don’t see an end in sight,” she said.
Besides, the work has been good for her, too.
Spending so much time around sudden death, vicariously experiencing those losses over and over, might make some people fearful of dying, or even living. But it has had the opposite effect for Corbitt. She said she is determined to take what joy she can while she can, even if it means doing things that might be a little scary. Before taking the LifeQuest job, a motorcycle would have been out of the question. Now, she has the memory of a vacation ride to upstate New York.
“I think it’s very important not to let fear of your own mortality prevent you from living your life,” she said. “I don’t want to be 70 and unhappy with how my life turned out.”