Heart to heart: Karen Anzelc's connections with her patients

Karen Anzelc receives DAISY Award and poses with team

A call from UI Health Care heart transplant coordinator Karen Anzelc, RN, BSN, can be life-changing for a patient. It’s a moment that requires a quick response, but for some patients, it stops time.

“I’ve had more than one patient say, ‘Can you say it again?’” Anzelc says. “Calling somebody on the phone to say, ‘We have a heart for you.’ That’s definitely the best part of the job because that’s the moment they’ve been waiting for.”

What happens after the phone call is a well-choreographed process between Anzelc, the patient, operating room teams, bedside nurses and doctors, and the Iowa Donor Network.

Unlike most surgeries, organ transplant procedures may occur at any time. Whether the patient is at home, a little league game, in line at the grocery store, Anzelc offers immediate guidance on how to prepare for their transplant (i.e., don’t eat anything, pack a bag, leave within 15 minutes, etc.).

How the transplant process works

Some may think the next challenge after finding a heart for transplant is the surgery itself, but other challenges come first.

In fact, Anzelc says after that call there is a six-page checklist for what happens next. Anzelc says a lot of it is regulatory work, but there are several pieces related to getting the patient ready.

“We bring them in, they go to the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit, they get IVs, and they get tests done. Because we have to make sure at that moment in time that this person is ready for major open-heart surgery,” Anzelc says.

Timing of the procedure is key. The team begins surgery on the patient while a heart is being removed from the organ donor by another set of surgeons, typically at a different hospital. At the same time, the Iowa Donor Network is coordinating between the hospitals on how the organ will be transported.

While those three parties work together to coordinate timing, Anzelc partners up with the patient.

“The process can be really daunting, and I try to be a helpful guide,” Anzelc says.

Post-op support

Anzelc’s work doesn’t stop after the surgery. She knows that organ transplants can take a major physical and emotional toll on the body.

“Patients and their loved ones are going to have a lot of emotions,” she says. “So, I like to remind them that it’s normal to have new challenges or to feel strong, new emotions.”

Anzelc says that each patient is paired with a dedicated transplant social worker who provides patients with the tools (both physically and mentally) to undergo and recover from transplant surgery. Also, coordinators like Anzelc are in frequent contact with patients in the first several months after surgery to regularly assess their mental health.

“Sometimes the culmination of the entire process can send people into a fragile state mentally,” she says.

Coordinators may suggest, or a patient may request, formal therapy with a counselor or psychiatrist. Our organ transplant nurse coordinators can refer patients to a mental health professional through UI Health Care, or they can suggest an all-organ support group that meets every quarter.

Above all, Anzelc simply listens. She hears her patients’ emotional struggles and does her best to show them the bright side of life—efforts that resulted in a patient nominating her for a DAISY Award.

“It was really rewarding to see that they nominated me,” Anzelc says. “It just showed me that I did actually reach them. I got through to them.”