Transplant manager says goodbye virtually

We are IU Health

April 28, 2020

Donna Ennis is leaving Methodist after nearly a half-century of compassionate care, first as a nurse, then as a transplant coordinator, and finally as transplant manager.

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

After nearly five decades spent working at IU Health Methodist Hospital, Donna Ennis never expected to retire without being able to hug, laugh and cry with her colleagues.

But such is life in the era of COVID-19, where meetings are conducted virtually and all but the most essential hospital team members are working from home.

Ennis, manager of thoracic transplant services, decided at the end of last year that she would close out her career on May 1, 2020, one month shy of her 48th anniversary with Methodist.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. She knew it would be bittersweet – saying goodbye to the team and the hospital she loves while at the same time looking forward to hanging out with the family she treasures, in particular her five grandchildren.

But she never thought it would unfold in such a surreal manner – leaving while her colleagues are locked in a battle with a pandemic.

“I’m seeing my staff redeployed, and I’m very proud of them,” she said. “The entire IU Health team, the leadership … you see their dedication and their flexibility and their commitment to patients at this time, and it makes you proud.”

It also made her question if this was the right time to leave, but she decided to stick with her plan, knowing it would be difficult no matter what date she chose.

From her lakefront home in Cicero, Ennis watches the sunset each evening, after spending her days wrapping up a career of service. She is helping to orient her successor, Jill Gorman, to the job she will assume on May 4, and she is conducting her last performance evaluations for her team members over the computer.

These remote conversations are difficult for many reasons.

“I love my staff. I’m a people person and I’d rather be doing this one on one with them,” she said. “It’s very sad. I get a little melancholy and wonder when I’ll see them again.”

A CAREER IN NURSING

Ennis graduated with a degree in nursing from Purdue University in 1972. She started her career that same year as a labor and delivery nurse at Methodist. After a few years spent taking care of moms and babies, she transitioned to a nursing role with dialysis patients.

By the early 1980s, she had moved into what she calls her “most interesting and challenging role” at the bedside – as a nurse in the cardiovascular critical care unit.

Those were heady times for the hospital and for the young nurse.

In 1982, she was part of the team that performed Indiana’s first heart transplant. The patient was a 38-year-old woman who would go on to live another quarter century.

“We were truly involved with some pioneers of the time,” said Ennis in an earlier interview. “We had teams there around the clock. It was all so new and very exciting.”

A few years later, she was part of history again as a nurse on the team that performed the state’s first liver transplant.

After more than 20 years as a bedside nurse, Ennis moved into the role of transplant coordinator, first with kidney patients, then liver patients. She became active in NATCO, the North American Transplant Coordinators Organization, serving on its board of directors and encouraging other coordinators to be certified.

Along the way, she earned another degree – this time in business – from Indiana University, and in 2001, she took on the manager title she holds today.

Earlier this year, she and her team celebrated another milestone – the 1,000th lung transplant at Methodist. The first came in 1989.

To date, IU Health’s transplant program for children and adults also includes more than 900 transplanted hearts, nearly 8,000 kidneys and more than 3,400 livers.

MENTOR AND FRIEND

Whether working at the bedside, as a transplant coordinator or in her management role, Ennis said one thing has been constant – the quality of the people surrounding her.

“I’m fortunate that the people I’ve worked with have been wonderful,” she said. “It isn’t just the team or the area where you work, it goes beyond to other units and specialties.”

Linda Munsch, manager of abdominal transplant services at IU Health University Hospital, has worked with Ennis for years and appreciates her colleague’s dedication to IU Health and the transplant program.

“She has been not only a mentor to me, but a great friend as well. You will be missed, Donna,” Munsch said.

David Alvar, IU Health’s vice president for transplant, gives Ennis perhaps the greatest compliment, calling her a “true advocate for patients and a champion for nurses.”

That shines through in big and small ways.

“She is the first one to return an abandoned wheelchair to the front door and always thinks about how a program decision will impact patients,” he said. “Donna has encouraged professional development and involvement in national organizations among transplant coordinators to impact not only the IU Health program but transplantation overall.”

This kind of attention will no doubt embarrass Ennis, who believes there are many more important people within IU Health to spotlight.

“There are so many heroes out there who need more recognition,” she said, “particularly now.”

But she agreed to be interviewed, thankful for her long and satisfying career and still passionate about the people she has worked alongside and the patients she has grown to love.

“I’ve been able to see two very successful transplant programs at Methodist and University become one program, and we’ve been very fortunate with the leadership and our physicians and surgeons and coordinators to have excellent outcomes.”

As she winds up her last week on the job from her home overlooking Morse Lake, Ennis is grateful – for her work, her friendships and her family, who are also on the front lines in the COVID-19 fight. Her daughter and daughter-in-law are both nurses, and her son and son-in-law are firefighters.

She longs to be of more help to them, specifically with the grandchildren, but knows that will have to wait until social distancing rules have been relaxed. In the meantime, she is happy to have her dog to keep her company during this stressful time.

“It’s just been me and my dog for several weeks.”

A farewell party had been planned for Ennis, but like every other gathering, that has had to be canceled. Instead, she’ll have a Zoom retirement party on Thursday, virtual cake and all, over the computer.

For now, that will have to do, until she can return someday to say goodbye in person – to laugh, to cry and to hug.

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