Nursing experiences lead to involvement in organ donor program

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Cathy Timmons


“A year ago my father became paralyzed from arthritis. With donated bone, plates and screws two vertebrae were fused so he can walk again,” she said.

Two of her cousins received donated kidneys from their mothers. A sister-in-law has had corneal transplants to restore her vision. A campground neighbour is a liver transplant recipient.  The son of a woman who attends the same church was an organ donor.

When Timmons, who grew up in Inverness, graduated from the Sydney City Hospital School of Nursing she immediately headed for the United States.

“I was the one who was never getting married, never having kids and never coming back,” she laughed.

Seven nurses from her class were recruited to work at a hospital in Connecticut.

“We were told our expenses would be paid so off we went. I had to borrow $1,000 to get there and we were not reimbursed. We didn’t have $200 between all of us so we went together to Human Resources and told them we’d have to quit. They reimbursed us and we learned our first lesson, get it in writing,” she said.

After a year Timmons and a friend joined a Travel Nursing program that allowed them to spend 13 weeks in different hospitals. She went from Jacksonville, Florida to Lexington, Kentucky, where she stayed for seven years.

“I started on a neurosurgery floor and they kept renewing my contract. After a year I agreed to stay on if I could continue training in critical care nursing. That put me into intensive care units and that’s where I first started with organ donation.”

Kentucky, at that time, had no seatbelt or bicycle helmet legislation and serious head injuries were common.

“Kentucky had an awful lot of horse farms with acres and acres of fencing. A typical trauma injury was very often a fence post through the head. We were dealing with an organ donor at least every week,” she said.

There were times when she used chest compressions to keep a heart going so the kidneys could be removed for transplant and other times when she flew to different states to procure organs for transplant. Despite loving the work, she eventually got homesick and moved back to Inverness.

“I’d been skydiving, bungee jumping, spelunking in caves and driven a Porsche but I realized my nieces and nephews thought of me as the aunt from the States and I didn’t like that. Then both my grandmothers died within a short time and I just knew it was time to come home.”

Timmons was working casual shifts in Inverness and dating an old friend from school days when she got a job offer at a 10-bed hospital in Neil’s Harbour.

“It was definitely what you’d call a rural hospital, one nurse and one LPN on the night shift. We were the pharmacy, too, on weekends. We had to deal with whatever came through the door, including a full-blown heart attack and a woman in labour in the space of a week, because the bigger hospitals were two hours away and people could not always get there.”

Timmons was pregnant with the first of three sons when her husband got a job at what is now Northern Pulp. A few months after the baby was born she started working in the Aberdeen Hospital ICU.

“One day I had an otherwise healthy patient who was brain dead from a bleed. There was an organ donation program in Halifax and I had no idea there was no program for the rest of the province. Because of the work I’d done in Kentucky, it was second nature to me so I picked up the phone and starting making calls.”

That patient became an organ donor and Timmons was soon invited to sit on a committee that laid the groundwork for a provincial program, now known as Legacy of Life.

“I knew about organ donation but I learned about tissue transplant working here. One to three per cent of people can donate organs which are life-saving but almost anyone under 80 can donate tissue which is life-enhancing so that is a very exciting field and it is certainly an option in our hospital.”

Timmons, who works one day a week as an organ and tissue donation resource nurse, urges anyone who wants to be a donor to first make their wishes clear on their health card and then share those wishes with family members. When she is not providing education sessions for hospital staff or the community, she is an operating room nurse.

Active in the nurses union and a variety of professional organizations, she is also half-way through her nursing degree at St. Francis Xavier University.

“My husband is great and my kids are great but I couldn’t do what I do without Sandra Smith. We thought we were hiring a babysitter when out oldest two were in diapers but she’s much more like a grandmother. She makes a lot of things possible.” 

Organizations: Sydney City Hospital School of Nursing, Human Resources, Porsche Aberdeen Hospital ICU St. Francis Xavier University

Geographic location: Inverness, Lexington, Kentucky, United States Connecticut Jacksonville, Florida Neil Northern Pulp Halifax

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