The Rewards And Challenges Of Transplant Social Work

You already know what it feels like to prepare for a transplant as a patient. But how do transplant professionals view the process? We asked Laurie McDonald, a clinical social worker and case manager for the UNC Center for Transplant Care, to answer our questions.

heart in hands transplant


What are some of the biggest challenges of transplant social work?

At times, I really, really want a particular organ recipient or donor to succeed, but based on his or her circumstances, that person is just not a suitable candidate. After years and years of this line of work, I have to console myself with the truth: transplant is not for everyone. For some, a transplant will make the situation worse instead of better. It’s difficult to keep that message at the forefront when the person in front of me truly believes a transplant will save them.


What are some of the rewards you experience?

Just this week, two people were transplanted in a row. Now, they are delighted to be breathing without supplemental oxygen and walking more easily than they have in a long time. To see joy and relief on the faces of transplant recipients and their family members is wonderful. I love seeing patients years post-transplant living full lives that honor their donors. Transplant remains a daily part of their lives, but it is no longer the central focus.


Have you witnessed areas of progress in transplant assessment?

Within the past few years, we have become more invested in transplant assessment tools that will give us concrete, unbiased information. When a doctor recommends lab work, those tests will result in definitive numbers that the doctor can use to diagnose and treat you. When you’re dealing with social and emotional factors, it’s far more difficult to accurately quantify and represent a patient’s profile.

We have started using a validated measure that is linked to patient outcomes developed by Jose Maldonado at Stanford. I use this risk assessment tool to come up with a score that reflects a candidate’s psychosocial situation. It’s imperfect, but it’s absolutely progress. It makes it far easier for team members to compare information and communicate across specialties. Personal and even subconscious biases are always a factor, so it’s extremely important for us to continue to take steps in this direction.


What advice would you give to those who are considering transplant social work?

Do it! It’s stimulating, rewarding, wonderful work. I absolutely love it. 15 years in and I’m not bored yet!

Quality improvement is really important in transplant in general and at UNC in particular. We are always learning and working to do things better. There are advances in medication, medical techniques, social evaluations and other areas happening constantly. It’s really an interesting place to be.


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