James Foster/Sun-Times

Tears part of the job for organ recovery specialist, but donations ‘something beautiful’

Cara Moulesong says she gets to see the best in people who — despite going through intense trauma — are still willing to help strangers.

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Just because she cries at work doesn’t mean that Cara Moulesong is unhappy with her job.

As an organ recovery coordinator for Gift of Hope Organ & Tissue Network, she regularly faces the emotionally fraught task of guiding families through the process of letting go of loved ones — and allowing their vital organs and tissues to be donated to people waiting for transplants.

Tears come with the territory.

“You’re dealing with death, and there’s no sugarcoating that it can be hard. I cry a lot with families,” said Moulesong, 40, a resident of southwest suburban Channahon.

But the upside is profound. As of May, there were nearly 4,000 Illinois residents on the waitlist to receive an organ transplant. Successful donations mean that life can literally come from death.

“I get to see the best of people,” she said. “When everything’s been taken from them, the beautiful thing is that many are still willing to give to strangers they’ll never meet — which is amazing to me.”

She added:I just like that something positive can come from something so negative. ... This sounds cliche, but when people donate their organs, it’s really something beautiful that can come from something so nightmarish.”

Moulesong’s passion for saving lives helps explain why she’s stuck with a career she didn’t discover until her mid-20s.

The South Holland native initially majored in art while an undergraduate at Illinois State University and Joliet Junior College. But shortly before graduation in 2002, Moulesong switched gears and decided to follow in the footsteps of her mother, a longtime ER nurse.

“I’d visit her at work and kind of grew up in the level one trauma atmosphere, and so I was always fascinated by it,” she said.

Moulesong briefly worked as a paramedic before moving to Dallas, Texas, with her husband Mike, where she first landed a job as an organ recovery coordinator. Upon returning to the Chicago area in 2007, she transferred to Gift of Hope — the Itasca-based organ and tissue recovery nonprofit.

Twelve years later, she’s become used to the job’s extraordinary routine. Organ recovery coordinators are always on-call during their 12-hour shifts, three or four days a week. At any time, Gift of Hope can receive an emergency dispatch notifying them of a candidate for organ donation located in their network of 188 hospitals throughout Illinois and parts of Indiana.

Moulesong only receives a patient’s name and location at first. Her job is to rush to the hospital and evaluate each situation. About 2 percent of hospital patients are considered possibilities for transplants of hearts, lungs, kidneys and other organs: those ruled brain-dead or those who may not recover from life-threatening injuries or illnesses. Organ transplants coordinators must determine if the patient is on the Illinois Organ/Tissue Donor Registry and carefully analyze the person’s medical chart and history.

“We look through their medical records, talk with staff and find out everything we can about them in a short amount of time and evaluate what organs they are eligible to donate if they become a donor.”

The next step is meeting the potential donor’s family or loved ones to talk to them about the opportunity to donate.

It’s not an easy task. Moulesong’s arrival means the confirmation of the worst-case scenario for a patient.

“We are not the lifesavers. We’re there when everything is not turning out so good. It’s very emotional,” she said. “I do my best. I may not understand the kind of pain that goes along with that trauma. But I understand what it’s like to love somebody or to be a parent or a wife. So I try to put myself in their shoes without diving too far into it.”

If she gets authorization for recovery, Moulesong supervises the management of the donor and tries to improve organ function and ensure that they remain healthy until transplantation occurs.

The coordinator also provides assistance for the organs’ transportation and works with coroners and medical examiners. She often wears the hat of a case manager, an onsite nurse and social worker — all over the course of a single 12-hour shift.

But ultimately, her job boils down to one essential task.

“We want to help families make the best decision possible at the worst possible time,” she said.

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