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Helen Irving

Helen Irving: Leading by listening – Preserving organ donation in the COVID-19 epicenter

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On April 2, 2020, when hospitals in the LiveOnNY service area were notified that COVID‐19 referrals should be deferred, organ donation and transplantation came to a grinding halt. But with extensive emergency management training and actual crisis experience with hospital fires and major hurricanes, Helen Irving, president & CEO of LiveOnNY, stepped up to lead the New York City organ procurement organization’s (OPO) response to get organ donation and transplantation back on track. Being at the epicenter of a global pandemic required taking some unprecedented steps to continue to facilitate organ donation.

Helen Irving

Helen Irving, president and CEO of LiveOnNY

“Every solution presented 10 more problems,” said Irving, who ran through a chronicle of the challenges organ donation in NYC faced from early March through June 2020. First, the call center needed to go remote and then calls increased from 100 to 600 a day. Then potential donor families were not allowed in hospitals and transportation, courier and testing services were all closed. Each of these required Irving and her staff to find workarounds to existing best practices. Organ donation declined to 10 in April (from 26 in March). The comprehensive referral policy resumed on May 6 and donors improved to 18 in May.

She led more than 100 consecutive remote ‘daily huddles’ where the OPO’s directors and managers shared information. “I asked each leader to report out on how the staff were doing, what issues had been identified that they needed help resolving from the team, and what did they see coming down the pike in the next 24 hours where they would need assistance,” says Irving.

Irving leads a team of 225 healthcare professionals who are responsible for the organ donation program that covers the greater metropolitan New York area and serves 98 hospitals, a population of 13.6 million, and 10 transplant centers.

She and her colleagues published an article to share information about their experience with COVID-19 in the June 2020 issue of the American Journal of Transplantation, “There are no best practices in a pandemic: Organ donation within the COVID‐19 epicenter.”

Irving said being a good listener helped her through the crisis. “I think it really is patience, listening and really thinking through the situation that is presented to you at the time.” She credits her grandmother with teaching her the importance of listening.

“We did our own de-brief internally and also debriefed as a state,” says Irving. “We were very fortunate in New York that the state came together, every transplant program, every hospital and every OPO. We walked through all the steps and the issues together and everyone supported everyone else. That was one of the great collaborations that came out of this experience.”

Irving speaks at St. Patrick’s Cathedral during National Donate Life Month

Irving was born and grew up in London where she attended nursing school. Her career in transplantation and organ donation began when she arrived in New York City in 1991 via Montreal and began her work with LiveOnNY as a transplant coordinator. She got her MBA and then moved from the bedside to administration to fulfill her interest in supporting staff. “You take care of your staff and the staff will take great care of their patients and their donor families,” said Irving. “Your job as CEO is to make sure staff members have the tools and the equipment and they will succeed.”

With the benefit of hindsight, Irving said she would have required that members of her team take some breaks during the long haul of dealing with the COVID crisis. ”I would have made them take time to step out even if was just to hug their kids. It was so intense.”

“I do think we all severely underestimated the impact this has had on our staff. And I think we are going to see that for months to come that there’s a level of trauma that we’ve gone through, but we keep going because it’s what we’re supposed to do.” Irving has hired a part-time counselor who will implement the Heroes to Heroes protocol of dealing with trauma for LiveOnNY staff members.

She recently announced her retirement from LiveOnNY, a Platinum Circle Professional Partner organization of The Alliance. She plans to get back to her roots and pursue her passion of setting up hospitals in Africa, beginning with one in Uganda.

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