When Every Delivery Is Special Delivery

September 05, 2017

There’s the turbulence when the jet powers through inclement weather. There are the ball games he leaves when he’s coaching his kids. And there are the middle-of-the night phone calls that rouse him from a deep sleep.

Organ procurement requires a special breed.

Josh Nunley, 39, has been at IU Health for three years. But his training as a transplant perfusionist has been years in the making.

Straight out of high school he enrolled in the Army where he was stationed at Ft. Lee in Virginia, working in the automotive trade. After a three-year stint he applied his GI Bill toward a degree in health administration. Still, he was pulled to work in medicine so he enrolled in the surgical tech program through IU Health. There were 176 candidates for the program and only 17 were accepted. Nunley was one of them. He was trained in patient positioning, sterilization and surgery techniques. When a job opened in organ procurement, he jumped at the chance to join the team.

On a recent Sunday – his final day in a weeklong shift – he got a call at 7 a.m. to drive to another local hospital. Shortly afterward, he accompanied an IU Health transplant surgeon on an Indiana Donor Network jet bound for Chicago. He usually gets anywhere from two to six hours of lead time and always keeps a backpack close by his side – filled with toiletries, fresh scrubs, and snacks.

Once at the donor site hospital, Nunley assists in the operating room –prepping for the surgery, and preparing the organs for transport.

“I think being in the Army has helped me a lot. I learned about commitment, punctuality, accountability and definitely discipline,” said Nunley. “We had to play soldier three or four times a week in the middle of no where. You had to be ready for war. When an organ is ready for donation, you have to be ready to go.”

He estimates there has only been one week in three years when he hasn’t received a single call. More often than not, he has little down time – traveling to Florida, Tennessee, Michigan and closer to home – Fort Wayne and Evansville. Often he can be working with multiple teams from various transplant programs – all surgical professionals flying to the site to procure different organs – heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, intestine, pancreas. Each organ means a connection to a new transplant – someone waiting.

“The number of calls are so hit and miss. There have been times I’ve been up for 36 hours and I’ve traveled to two or three states in just a few days,” said Nunley. “You sleep where you can – the jet, or on a hospital bed. It’s busy.”

Much of the time Nunley reviews the medical history of the donors.

“I want to know how old the patient is, how much they weigh . . . we like to know what we are getting into,” said Nunley. “I try not to make a personal connection. It’s hard. It’s like a double-edged sword. You can let yourself think about that or you can think about the good that is coming from the organ donation – someone else is getting a new chance at life.”

It’s the kids that get him every time.

“I don’t like to think of a kid suffering or in pain from a horrific accident or tragedy,” said the father of a 17-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son. Victims of child abuse, heroine overdoses, suicide and car accidents are all part of the stories of some of the donors. “It can be tough. On one hand you read things that are troubling and sad. On the other hand, you know what your role is and appreciate that families have made tough decisions during tough times.”

Nunley had only worked at IU Health for a year when “his role” became clear.

His Godmother who he affectionately calls “Aunt Patty” was admitted for liver kidney transplant, which is performed in two surgeries a couple days apart. “I had taken the day off for my birthday when the organs were procured, but when I came back in, I was the one who took the kidney to the OR,” said Nunley.

“She was in bad shape and without the transplant, she might not have made it. Now she’s doing great, living a full life, spending time with her grandkids. Sure this is a stressful job but it’s also one of the best jobs. I see people every day who are so sick and so in need of an organ and then I see them after the transplant and how well they are doing – their life is going on because of someone else.”

-- By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
Reach Banes via email at
T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.

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