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Former liver transplant patient Karen Heller, left, with one of her nurses, Michelle Brown, RN, on the Transplantation and Liver Unit (WP-9). As a volunteer with the Transplantation Peer Mentors Program, Heller provides information and support to patients who are awaiting, or recently had, a transplant.

Transplantation peer mentors show patients what’s possible

Bruce Adams is a busy guy. The father of three teenagers works full time and volunteers with several organizations, including Yale New Haven Hospital.

It’s hard to imagine that 10 years ago, Adams was “very ill.” Awaiting a liver and kidney transplant, he was suffering from complications that included encephalopathy, a brain condition that can result from the liver’s failure to remove toxins from the body.

The patients he visits through YNHH’s Liver and Kidney Transplantation Peer Mentorship Program also find it hard to believe that Adams and fellow peer mentor Karen Heller were once where they are.

“Patients wonder if they’ll ever get back to normal,” said Transplantation social worker Diane Wuerth, LCSW. “When they see Karen and Bruce, they feel they can get through this.”

Wuerth and Transplantation social worker Lenore Hammers, LCSW, worked with Volunteer Services to develop the Transplantation Peer Mentorship Program, which launched in October 2019. It’s modeled on a similar program for heart transplant patients.

Adams and Heller each volunteer one day a week, visiting patients who need, or recently had, liver or kidney transplants. Due to current COVID-19 restrictions, they’re making themselves available to patients by phone.

“It’s one thing for members of the care team to tell patients, ‘This is what to expect,’” Hammers said. “It’s entirely different to hear it from someone who’s been through the experience.”

Many patients awaiting transplants have been ill for a while and suffer from emotional as well as physical effects.

“I tell patients, ‘I’ve been through the wars. I understand. It’s OK to feel down, but you can fight,’” said Adams, who received a liver and kidney from a deceased donor in 2010. “I want patients to know they can have a great life after transplantation.”

He and Heller also understand the challenges transplantation patients’ loved ones face, because their families faced similar ups and downs before their own transplants.

“Whenever I visit patients, I always ask caregivers how they’re doing, also,” said Heller, who had a liver transplant in 2018.

Wuerth and Hammers hope to expand the program, and, if patients’ feedback is any indication, will have no trouble recruiting additional peer mentors.

“I was able to get much more information about the expectations, process, the unexpected,” one patient said. “When I am physically able, I would like to be a volunteer for this program.”