She is an angel of new life

PHOTO: She is an angel of new life

SINGAPORE - He may be dead, but his legacy will live on in the bodies of others. His heart will still be beating, his eyes will continue to take in beautiful sights.

These comforting words convinced the family of a grandfather in his 70s, who had suffered a massive bleeding in his brain and was declared brain-dead, to donate his organs.

This happened last year.

And the person who had said those words is transplant coordinator Koh Xiu Xian.

With a fair complexion and purple streaks in her hair, the 25-year-old looks more like a K-pop star than someone who has to ask the unutterable.

This huge responsibility rests on her slender shoulders as she goes around hospitals trying to get permission to procure organs from those declared brain-dead from their loved ones.

"It isn't easy but someone has to do it," she says.

After graduating from the National University of Singapore in Life Sciences in 2009, Ms Koh wanted to work in healthcare.

"I wanted a job that's challenging, something where I could push myself to the fullest. So I picked this one," she says, smiling.

Since transplant coordinator is a "very specialised field", Ms Koh is glad that she was given on-the-job training on her very first day.

"It is more medical than it is science and prior to securing this job, my knowledge of organ donation and Hota (Human Organ Transplant Act) was limited," she said.

There are seven transplant coordinators in Singapore, working round the clock.

They are stationed at the National University Hospital (NUH), Singapore Health Services (SingHealth) and at the National Organ Transplant Unit (Notu).

Notu not only oversees organ donation and transplant activities on a national level, but also increases public awareness of the benefits of transplantation.

Ms Koh, who works for Notu, remembers her first case vividly.

"It was in 2009, the same year I graduated. The man was in his 40s and had had a massive stroke. His family was still reeling from the news. I was jittery and shaking all over. This case could make or break my career," she recalls.

"But when I entered the room where the family members were, something took over and I became very composed."

Since then, she has handled about 20 cases in all.

Ms Koh says she, like her six other colleagues, has to up her ante in her "soft skills".

"The key here is being able to empathise and sympathise. We must not only be there to ask for the gift of the organs, but also lend a listening ear, and sometimes a shoulder for them to cry on," she says.

But not all cases would end up in success.

"More often then not, we get a 'no' and it falls through. Then I would have to pick myself up, re-assess where I had gone wrong - perhaps it was something I said or did - and try not to repeat it again," she said.

Ms Koh says she was taught that certain words are taboo when speaking to families.

"We do not use the word 'harvest', for instance. It conveys an image of plucking and gathering. Instead, we use words like 'donate', 'recover', 'gifts', and 'generosity'," she says.

She adds that fortunately, she has not encountered any nasty situations.

"They can be angry at times but it's something I can handle," she adds.

She is lucky that she joined at a time when transplant coordinators no longer operate in a vacuum - not since the kerfuffle that followed a case at the Singapore General Hospital in 2007.

Grief-stricken relatives of a brain-dead man then had begged that his organs not be taken.

"Now, the areas of responsibilities are clearly divided. The medical social worker are in for the long haul. They handle the emotions and hand-hold the families throughout.

"My role is to help them understand the importance of life and living and how donating an organ will give someone a new lease on life," she says.

"I will always remember the family of that grandfather, especially during times when I feel disheartened or defeated.

"Once I told them that his legacy will live on... they asked to sign pledge cards for themselves too," she says.

For every success case, Ms Koh feels humbled.

"But at the same time, I feel some pride in being able to play a small part in helping someone give another person his or her life back."

juditht@sph.com.sg

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