Transplant boss pulls it all together to come first

Roberta Al Housani-Blakely, the UAE's first Certified Clinical Transport Coordinator, sets sights on a national organ register.

Roberta Al Housani-Blakely is keen to set up a national organ donor register in the UAE.  Lee Hoagland / The National
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ABU DHABI // Roberta Al Housani-Blakely is a woman of firsts.

Instrumental in the formation of the country's first dialysis programme and playing her part in setting up the first trauma centre - at Dubai's Rashid Hospital - Ms Al Housani-Blakely is also the UAE's first Certified Clinical Transport Coordinator (CCTC), one of only three in the Middle East.

The Canadian, who has worked in the UAE since 2000, is responsible for bringing together all aspects of the assessment process for patients who need organ transplants and for living donors, covering everything from admission to post-transplant care and education.

Ms Al Housani-Blakely, 54, a registered nurse since 1986, described her role at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City (SKMC) - where surgeons this week carried out the UAE's 80th transplant - as being like a detective.

"You have to be Sherlock Holmes," she said. "You have to try to find things and bring out what is important, because people don't always know what is relevant.

"We are the glue holding the team together. There has to be someone who pulls together the surgeon, the nephrologists, the hepatologist, the dietician, the psychiatrist and the lab and radiologists - that's the transplant coordinator's job. We have to oversee everything."

Her job on the front line of the transplant process, which involves spending huge amounts of time with patients and preparing them for what lies ahead, is instrumental to long-term success.

The best part of her job, she said, was seeing how a transplant could radically change someone's life.

Patients with kidney failure can spend up to six hours a day, three times a week, hooked up to a dialysis machine and have a much shorter life-expectancy.

"The best thing is seeing patients get off dialysis, having a normal life such as going back to schools, work or having babies," she said.

One of the most memorable transplants she assisted in involved a wife who gave her husband a kidney on Valentine's Day this year. "I am a sentimental softy," Ms Al Housani-Blakely said. "That one was really cute."

Her next role will be spearheading the country's first National Donor Registry, after the Government cleared up confusion over a law.

Transplants were legalised in 1993 but the law failed to include a medical definition of death, and the ambiguity over whether this included a patient being brain-dead or not made it impossible to use organs from these patients.

The Government has now endorsed a definition of brain-death, and the first transplant from such a donor was carried out at SKMC in April, using an organ from Saudi Arabia.

An organ-sharing programme set up in Saudi Arabia allowed this to happen but the precious nature of organs means this cannot be relied upon as a long-term solution, Ms Al Housani-Blakely said.

"What we need to do is start this here within the UAE," she said. "We have started work on this national organ register already.

"It will be done in stages, starting with something as simple as those wishing to register by signing a card. A national donor register database will follow." There is hope this could be realised this year.

It is a step in the right direction, but developments in organ transplants will move slowly and education about organ transplants are key, Ms Al Housani-Blakely said.

"If I said to someone right now, 'your mother, brother or father has been in an accident and there is nothing that can be done, would you consider donating their organs?', most people would be surprised and probably say no because many have not heard of it and do not understand it," she said.

To address this grey area, she believes educational programmes need to be run across the UAE.

"Most people will donate once they know what it is. We have a big staircase in front of us and we are only on the first or second step.

"But we are climbing. We will get there."